So, unlike Arsenal’s class of 2003-04 that Sir Alex Ferguson was so keen to match, Manchester United were not unbeatable after all. In truth they were never the equals of Arsène Wenger’s “Invincibles” and that they should lose eventually was no surprise, even if the identity of those who ended their run obviously was.
That the bottom club, Wolves, should be the ones to do it reinforces the belief that the league leaders have been riding their luck for some time, contriving to avoid defeat and extending their advantage at the top while not playing particularly well. Remember, they were given a torrid time by the paupers of Blackpool only 11 days earlier.
This eyebrow-raising result has done two things. It has opened up a title race that was in danger of developing into a procession and at the same time given Mick McCarthy and his sleeves-rolled scrappers renewed hope of avoiding relegation. Wolves may have turned up in sheep’s clothing for four successive defeats in the league but their tooth?and?claw performance here was well worth maximum points.
Ferguson, ever the curmudgeon, begrudged Arsenal their record sequence, claiming there had been “too many draws” in it for his liking. What he did not say, of course, was that the same applies to his present United team, whose unbeaten run ended at 29 matches and included 10 draws, nine of them in their 24 games this season prior to their trip to Molineux.
Nevertheless, they would have been seven points clear at the top had they won on Saturday – a margin none of their title rivals seemed equipped to pull back. As it is the gap is only four, and on current form Manchester City will fancy their chances in the derby at Old Trafford on Saturday. Chelsea, too, will be encouraged by the fact that they still have to play United twice, and Arsenal’s shocking concession of a four-goal lead to claim only a single point at Newcastle does not seem quite so expensive in the light of events in Wolverhampton.
For Ferguson and company the next four weeks could be decisive. After the visit from the “noisy neighbours”, as he calls City, they play Chelsea away on 1 March and a resurgent Liverpool at home five days later. If they still have a good lead at the top after that, it should be plain sailing. If they do not, the finishing straight will look ominous, featuring Arsenal away (30 April) and Chelsea at home (7 May).
What went wrong for them on Saturday? In the argot of the dressing room Wolves wanted it more. For back markers they have a remarkable facility for raising their game and upsetting the odds, United going the way of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City – all among only seven teams they have beaten in the league all season. Those results stand out as diamonds among the dross of defeats against Fulham, Wigan Athletic (twice), Bolton Wanderers (twice), Blackpool, Blackburn Rovers and West Ham United. As McCarthy pointed out, in typical spade-is-a-bleedin’-shovel style: “It’s all right lounging and basking in the sun after beating Man United but we’ve been bobbins against the teams around us at the bottom. We’ve got to start getting results against them, if we’re to stay up.”
United lost Rio Ferdinand with a calf strain sustained during the warm-up but for would-be champions that should have been an inconvenience rather than a major setback. Jonny Evans has filled in capably before and nobody expected his last-minute promotion from the bench to turn into the achilles heel it proved.
Certainly there was no hint of the drama to follow when Nani opened the scoring in the third minute, profiting from George Elokobi’s positional error and failure to make a recovery tackle. Wolves, Still shell-shocked after consecutive defeats against Manchester City, Liverpool, Stoke City and Bolton, there was a danger that Wolves might capitulate.
Instead, to their great credit, hit back with towering spirit and rugged determination, equalising quickly when Elokobi atoned for letting in Nani by heading powerfully past Edwin van der Sar from a left-wing cross delivered by Matt Jarvis after a short-corner routine.
Ferguson was unhappy about conceding from a set piece at which Evans was conspicuously ineffective and Nemanja Vidic a fraction late in challenging the scorer. United’s intermittent attempts to regain the lead were undermined by the poverty of their work in midfield, where the combative Karl Henry and Jamie O’Hara and the busy creativity of Nenad Milijas and Jarvis gave Wolves the edge. They had further deserved reward after 39 minutes, when Elokobi and Kevin Doyle together bundled an inswinging free-kick from Milijas over the line, the two players subsequently agreeing that Doyle, the striker, should be credited with only his third goal in 20 Premier League matches, .
United huffed and puffed in the second half to no avail. Chris Smalling replaced Evans to bolster the defence, but it was further forward that they were now found wanting. Michael Carrick, a peripheral figure rather than a potential England playmaker, gave way to Paul Scholes, whose efforts to energise the midfield brought him a booking, and Dimitar Berbatov, in shoulder-shrugging mode throughout, was withdrawn in favour of Javier Hernández. The changes amounted to precious little as Wolves defended their lead assiduously, with few genuine alarms. McCarthy said he was “extremely proud” of his team.
“That performance says it all about their spirit. My teams are built on spirit but we have a bit more than that – a bit of quality, too. The result is exceptionally pleasing, and at the moment it doesn’t bother me one iota to be bottom of the league. It’s where we finish in May that counts.” Ferguson will agree with the last sentence but the rest of his thoughts were left in the dressing room, next to the hair dryer.