Owen Hargeaves was a surprise starter for Manchester United as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men struggled to a narrow win at Old Trafford. For the second time in a fortnight Wolverhampton Wanderers was beaten at the Theatre of Dreams but there was little imagination to United’s play on a largely frustrating afternoon in Manchester.
Park Ji-Sung scored twice to earn United the points, including an injury time winner, but the home side takes little credit from the performance, even if the result brings Ferguson’s men to within two points of leaders Chelsea.
Despite the poor performance assistant manager Mike Phelan praised United’s spirit in earning a late winner.
“It’s happened many times before. In true Manchester United spirit we kept going and we got the points,” assistant manager Mike Phelan told Sky Sports.
“The players out there were a credit because it isn’t easy when you’re under the influence of a bug. But we got there in the end and they can rest now.”
Ferguson pulled off a major surprise by recalling the Canadian-born midfielder Hargreaves, despite recently declaring the 29-year-old “weeks away” from a return. The midfielder had not started a game for United in more than two years but began on the right side of midfield in a much changed United line-up to that which won in Turkey last week.
With injuries to key players a concern and the derby coming up at Eastlands on Wednesday, Ferguson made six changes to the side that beat Bursaspor in the Champions League. It appeared to disrupt United’s rhythm, which had brought five wins in a row.
Much as in the Carling Cup game against Wolves at Old Trafford last month, United began slowly, with little intensity in the home side’s play. The disjointed formation with John O’Shea, joined by Park and Darren Fletcher in central midfield, hardly helped.
If Ferguson hoped for Hargreaves’ energy to impact on the match then he – and many supporters – were quickly disappointed with the former Bayern Munich limping off with a hamstring injury on six minutes.
The substitution summed up Hargreaves’ miserable run, with just 30 seconds play in the entire 2009/10 campaign followed by a lengthy stay at Dr Richard Steadman’s Denver clinic. The midfielder has undergone operations on both knees in a vain attempt to play for the club again.
Hargreaves’ misery was Bébé’s gain and the Portuguese winger added some verve to United’s attack, which was missing both the injured Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov. The Bulgarian fell victim to the flu virus which has swept the United camp in recent days.
But without Paul Scholes, rested ahead of United’s clash with Manchester City on Wednesday, United too often lacked invention in the final third. Javier Hernández, Gabriel Obertan and Park interchanged regularly but United’s care in possession lacked quality.
Fortunate for the home side then that Wolves’ could not take the lead on the half hour, with Nenad Milijas’ left-foot drive diverted inches wide of Edwin van der Sar’s post by Nemanja Vidic.
Where the visitors failed, United capitalised with Fletcher neatly opening up the Wolves’ defence for Park to score his third goal in the past month. The Korean was as guilty of wastefulness as any but tucked home the chance with a smart first-time finish.
Park’s reward was a move inside from the left-hand to a more central position for the second period as United sought to breakdown Mick McCarthey’s stubborn side.
Yet, Ferguson’s outfit continually failed to provide a cutting edge in the final third. Bébé was guilty on more than one occasion of failing to deliver with team-mates in good positions, although the Portuguse youngster twice tested Marcus Hannemann in the visitors’ net.
For all United’s possession the home side could not increase its lead and Wolves’ took advantage on 66 minutes when former Red Sylvain Ebanks-Blake found the net with a drive through van der Sar’s legs.
It was the seventh time United had given up a lead this season and rich reward for Wolves’ enterprise. The Midlanders have already beaten City this season, with a narrow defeat at Stamford Bridge rough justice on McCarthey’s outfit.
Hernández looked United’s best bet for a winner and certainly United’s brightest attacking outlet. Twice the Mexican forged openings as the Reds sought a second goal, although a booking for a crude dive late in the second half is the first blemish on the youngster’s Old Trafford record.
Ferguson could do little but gamble on the win, with Scholes and Federico Macheda brought into the game with 20 remaining. Bébé – the substitute – substituted following a string of wayward crosses from the right flank.
Still, although the intensity increased with the clock winding down, the famed late Old Trafford onslaught failed to come. If anything Wolves matched the hosts for chances and Steven Fletcher could have done better with a half-chance from 15 yards which the Scot lashed over van der Sar’s goal.
Wolves came within minutes of earning a point, comfortably retaining possession in midfield just as Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion had done against Ferguson’s men earlier this season. United’s second goal seemed unlikely until Park, deep into injury time, cut inside the Wolves’ defence from the right and scored with a stunning finish at Hannemann’s near post.
If United’s younger players have sometimes sparkled this season, then this surely was the flip side of that coin. Inconsistency, in particular from Gabriel Obertan and Bébé today, allied to a deeply average United midfield by historical standards, almost cost the hosts further points.
The paucity of quality in the middle of the park is not helped by Hargreaves’ lengthy injury. Another set-back today had a sense of inevitability about it.
“It’s disapointing for Owen, its just the way things are going for him at the moment,” said Phelan.
“He’s made himself available and he’s worked extremely hard in the two years he’s been out. It was a risk and it didn’t work out for him today.”
Time will tell whether Ferguson is building a final great side on the occasion of his 24th anniversary in charge at Old Trafford. On this evidence it may take some time and no little work in the transfer market.
United – 4411 – Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Hargeaves (Bebe 9, Scholes 74), Fletcher, O’Shea (Macheda 74), Park; Obertan , Hernandez.
Wolves – 451 – Hahnemann; Stearman, Ward, Berra, Foley; Edwards (Fletcher 65), Henry, Hunt (Ebanks-Blake 64), Jarvis, Milijas (Mancienne 77); Doyle.
Attendance – 75,285
Man of the Match – Park
Possession: United 50% – 50% Wolves
Attempts: 14 – 8
On target: 10 – 6
Corners: 3 – 2
Fouls: 6 – 11