For an hour the dreamers had begun to dream. Households across Merseyside & Greater Manchester had seen its occupants edge ever closer to the television, whilst inside the JJB the travelling contingent of Manchester United supporters waited. And waited.
They knew it would come, it always does. But with Wigan Athletic in stubborn mood, and with neither Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov nor Wayne Rooney able to find a finish to some slick football, the doubts were lingering. Defeat here would guarantee the title race would remain just that until the final day of the season (provided Liverpool beat West Brom on Sunday of course), and with Arsene Wenger & Arsenal loading their guns for one last hurrah at Old Trafford on Saturday, nothing could be taken for granted.
Good job Carlos Tevez has something to prove then isn’t it?
The Argentine had waited just nine minutes of the second half before he was summoned from the bench to replace the tidy but more passive Anderson. He had to wait just six minutes more to make an impact. Michael Carrick, who would go on to make another seismic contribution four minutes from time, dragged a right foot shot across the face of goal from 20 yards, and the livewire Tevez adjusted in an instant to steer a backheeled flick beyond Latics keeper Richard Kingson from eight yards. If his celebration during Sunday’s Manchester derby indicated a frustration with his situation, there was only delight evident here.
Up until that point, United had failed to draw a save from Kingson as Wigan defended manfully a lead given to them by the Colombian Hugo Rodallega shortly before the half-hour mark. Steve Bruce may well have had his hand forced by an injury to Amr Zaki & a lack of match sharpness that seems to follow Mido round like transfer gossip, but his decision to start with Rodallega, flanked by the considerable pace and talent of Charles N’Zogbia & Luis Antonio Valencia, proved astute enough to give Nemanja Vidic & Jonny Evans a torrid evening.
Valencia has been linked consistently with a move to Old Trafford, with latest reports suggesting Sir Alex Ferguson has instigated a £22m move for the Ecuadorian. Within two minutes, he had a chance to impress (or upset) his potential employers, his pace taking him clear of Evans & Vidic, but his attempted scoop beyond Edwin Van der Sar was off target, and his penalty appeals were fanciful at best.
Wigan were showing a propensity for sharp passing which was causing United no little problem. Carrick & Paul Scholes found their faces filled by the combative Lee Cattermole & Michael Brown, whilst the quality of their wide players kept Patrice Evra & John O’Shea honest throughout. Despite this it was the visitors who should have been in front first, Titus Bramble’s lax marking allowing Berbatov to wrestle free down the right and send in an inviting cross that Rooney met on the run with a free header. But in trying to steer the header into the corner, the England man directed his effort woefully off target and Wigan were off the hook.
As they were minutes later when Berbatov & Ronaldo opened up doors all over the home defence, creating an inviting chance which Carrick swept just over the bar from close range. It seemed the Champions-elect had found their rhythm.
But in Rodallega, Wigan possessed a constant nuisance. Running the channels selflessly, roughing up Vidic & Evans, and holding the ball up, the Colombian was everywhere in the first half, and after 29 minutes he had opened the scoring. Vidic looked in control as he leapt for Cattermole’s hopeful angled ball in the box, but Rodallega made sufficient contact to knock the Serb off balance, and after a comedy moment where neither player could locate the ball, was able to flash a left foot strike inside Van der Sar’s near post. Vidic protested to referee Rob Styles- and seemed to have a point, but the goal stood. Rafa Benitez put down his book and made himself comfortable.
That Wigan had an hour in which to hold onto their lead was a fact not lost on most. Seasoned observers of United under Ferguson are schooled enough to know that a one-goal advantage is not safe in the 89th minute, let alone the 29th, and possession became a rare commodity for the home side almost immediately as United sought a route back into the game. Rooney swept over the top after a dainty passing move had opened up a shooting opportunity, and Ronaldo failed to find his range with a couple of typically-theatrical free kicks, but the best chance of the latter part of the half fell to Rodallega, dragging a shot wide on his left foot after neat approach work by Cattermole & Valencia.
Once Tevez had made his presence felt and normal service had been resumed, it was pretty much one way traffic. Ronaldo was denied a penalty when he tumbled under a shove from Maynor Figueroa at full speed, replays proved inconclusive despite the Portuguese star’s predictable anguish at the decision, which would deepen when he lashed a glorious chance over the bar from the edge of the box, prompting some pretty scathing gestures from Ferguson on the touchline.
Still, for all their effort, you suspected Wigan were unlikely to hold out. Bruce had undoubtedly got his team selection and tactics spot on with Brown, Cattermole & Paul Scharner detailed to stifle the creativity of Carrick & Scholes, yet by the 75th minute it was noticeable that Scharner in particular was tiring, and with young Ben Watson on the bench a substitution would have made sense.
As it transpired, the change saw Mido replace the tidy and hard-working N’Zogbia, with Rodallega moved to the left flank. It proved costly, the Colombian caught dozing by a rare sortie forward by John O’Shea, and when the ball was pulled across the edge of the box, Scharner’s tired legs could not get close enough to Carrick to stop him arrowing a beautifully controlled left foot strike into Kingson’s top right hand corner from 20 yards. It was a goal fit to win any match, typical of the player it has to be said, but Wigan can feel rightly aggrieved that it arrived so late in a game to which they contributed so much.
Ronaldo missed a great chance to give the scoreline added sheen in the dying embers, blazing over after Ryan Giggs had played him in, but it mattered little. Save one Rodallega free kick that Scharner could not scramble towards goal, there was little alarm for Ferguson’s men, who move on to Old Trafford for a lunchtime clash with Arsenal that requires only a draw to allow the champagne corks to be popped. Bet against them? I wouldn’t dare.