Goals from Patrice Evra and substitute Chicharito gave spluttering Manchester United a 2-0 win to send them level on points at the top of the table with champions Chelsea. Visitors Wigan were reduced to 9 men after 2 red cards in the space of 2 minutes but the Red Devils were true to form and managed to make a struggle out of a procession.
Evra’s first Premier League goal for 4 years and Wayne Rooney’s long overdue return – his first appearance since Stretford-End.com was given credit by CNN for him signing a new long term contract at the club – were the footnotes from this encounter for the hosts.
Wigan did as much as any visitor to Old Trafford could reasonably be expected to do and it was through early optimism that they were almost rewarded; with easily twice as many chances as their hosts in the first half, and good ones too. Hugo Rodallega has been a rumoured target for the top sides for over a year and it was easy to see why – Latics boss Martinez had decided on a bold, combative, pacy frontline and it was causing problems for a first choice, full strength United defence.
Rodallega was the architect of most things good for Wigan; forcing Vidic into a slip but then slipping itself, the ball squirmed to Gomez who should have done better but blazed over in the first 6 minutes. Rodallega then Gomez both tested veteran stopper van der Sar from outside the area, before Nani had United’s first real effort from a similar distance.
But that was it, really, as the game moved towards first half stoppage time. United certainly began to exert themselves in terms of territorial dominance but never really tested the Wigan keeper Al Habsi. N’Zogbia went on a dazzling run, beating 3 United men before van der Sar was pressed into action again though the save was fairly comfortable. From the resultant corner, Rodallega again found himself with space to perform an acrobatic scissors kick but it was well wide.
United are certainly renowned for their goals at unlikely times though and just as Wolves, a couple of weeks earlier, found themselves unfortunate in terms of showing all the right endeavour but not severely punishing their more illustrious opponents when they had the chance, Patrice Evra changed the whole complexion of the game right on the stroke of half time. Rafael’s throw to Ji-Sung Park found the South Korean in space on the right – enough space to pick a pass to the onrushing Evra at the far post, who headed into the far corner. The Frenchman later joked (!) that he would buy his pal a car for the assist.
Despite the lead, United were far from impressive, and Sir Alex was evidently far from impressed, with the team responsive and on the ball early on the second half. Still, with no cutting edge, Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney were introduced – to cheers, and there can be no doubt that Rooney’s return was welcomed, despite the obvious safeguarding of the timing by Ferguson. Old Trafford rang out the “Rooney” chant on more than one occasion. Rooney’s form before his injury was clearly below par and though such an occasion should have been perfect for him, it was clear there was no magic switch and his return to hitting the back of the net will have to wait a little longer.
United’s own profligacy is not quite so easily excused; sendings off a minute either side of the hour for the visitors should have resulted in a far greater creation of chances if not a deluge of goals. Alcaraz was dismissed for a second bookable offence after lunging at Fletcher and Rodallega demonstrated the lack of discipline that perhaps has denied him a move to a top level team when he pointlessly and recklessly threw himself into a tackle at Rafael – the young Brazilian was lucky to escape injury but responded in the best possible manner, letting his football do the talking as he became chief tormentor.
Unfortunately the rest of the team didn’t take note of the urgency; it was Rafael who put in the cross that substitute Chicharito superbly headed in the 77th minute, but other than that, it was injury time until United finally began to pile in the chances. Nani crossed from the right and Rafael’s late arrival was all that denied him a goal – perhaps it was expectancy of his younger teammate to bury the chance that caught Wayne Rooney off guard but he should still have done better with his effort, sending it right into the arms of Al Habsi.
Scholes had a 20 yard effort deflected to Evra, who in a far more likely position than that which he had scored from inexplicably failed to even hit the target, and Gabriel Obertan’s spectacular volleyed effort hit the side netting.
The 2-0 final score moved United to joint top, behind Chelsea on goal difference. Cause for optimism indeed after such a turbulent start to the season, especially as United can still say they are unbeaten this season, with this latest result taking their run since the last loss to 27 games. The negative aspect is clearly with the failure to stamp dominance on games; with a “fill your boots” invitation with 30 minutes left against opponents who still, to their credit, made positive changes, the Red Devils failed to capitalise. They will be forgiven if it was merely an off day; however, if it was down to inability to do so, as this season’s form would seem to suggest so far, then the questions that were being asked at Fulham and Everton are probably far more seriously relevant after this game.
All in all, yes, United are now level on points, but the fact that Chelsea and Arsenal – both losers on the same day – have now lost 4 games each at this point, will surely cause Sir Alex into a damning evaluation of his own team, given that they don’t hold a comfortable lead at the top of the table.
Ratings : van der Sar 7, *Rafael 8, Ferdinand 7, Vidic 7, Evra 8, Nani 7, Fletcher 7, Carrick 7 (Chicharito 7), Park 6 (Scholes 7), Obertan 6, Macheda 6 (Rooney 6)