Manchester United’s 29-match Premier League unbeaten run came to an abrupt end in the limpest fashion at Molineux, losing to Wolverhampton Wanderers with uncharacteristic timidity. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, one up within three minutes, conspired to lose against relegation bound Wolves as United once against suffered away from home. It is the pattern of a campaign.
Yet, there was a certain sense of inevitability about the loss, as United huffed with so little force during a laboured second half. After all, the warning signs have been flagged all season. Three victories away from Old Trafford had come with late and - frankly - unlikely goals.
Not so against Mick McCarthey’s battling Midlanders as United failed to take advantage of Arsenal’s draw with Newcastle earlier in the day. In truth, despite dominating possession in the second half, United looked unlikely scorers.
Ferguson’s men must now regroup ahead of the Manchester derby next weekend, safe in the knowledge that further defeat, this time against direct title rivals, could prove cataclysmic for the side’s ambitions this season.
“It was an opportunity,” Ferguson told MUTV, with uncanny honesty.
“I said before the game, I do think Wolves are in a false position. But we had a great start. We made a lot of chances, particularly in the first half.
“Then in the second we were not at the races. Their keeper did not have many saves to make. The pitch was not very good but we didn’t make anything.”
Perhaps Rio Ferdinand’s injury in the warm-up was a forebare of the game to come. The 32-year-old defender pulled out of the match at the last possible moment, with Chris Smalling unable to take part because he had not yet completed the warm-up himself. Ferdinand will miss the next fortnight with a calf injury.
“It was a blow,” said Ferguson, “because the experience Rio has got is always vital in games like that.”
Indeed, the insecure nature of United’s defence told inside 10 minutes when George Elokobi head home Matt Jarvis’ inventive short corner routine for Wolves’ equaliser. It was some sense of revenge for the Cameroonian who was completely flummoxed by Nani as the Portuguese scored, quite superbly, within three minutes of the start.
If the early United goal portended a fourth away Premier League victory of the season, it proved an entirely false dawn. And a hugely underwhelming one at that.
Yet, United could have added a second within minutes of taking the lead. Wayne Rooney shot straight at Wolves’s ‘keeper Wayne Hennessey after Dimitar Berbatov found the England striker in space, before the Bulgarian again found the opposition stopper after some brilliant footwork inside the box.
Instead, Elokobi headed home and handed the hosts the initiative.
Not that United failed to create chances. Nani went close with a free-kick on the half-hour before on-loan midfielder Jamie O’Hara and then Nenad Milijas both went close for the hosts in a game increasing affected by the driving wind.
But the Serbian was even more influential minutes later as Wolves scored what proved the winner on the stroke of half-time. Milijas’ free-kick was headed home by striker Kevin Doyle, although Elokobi was competing with his own teammate for the glory.
That – for United – was that with the second period offering little in the way of quality in the final third, despite the introduction of Paul Scholes at half-time and Javier Hernández with 25 minutes to go.
True, O’Hara should have seen red for a crude foul on Darren Fletcher that would normally have brought a second yellow card and Elokobi’s hand-ball could have brought United a second-half penalty. But to point fingers at the referee would do little more than paper over the gaping chasms in United’s performance.
Surely, Ferguson’s outfit cannot be as poor at Old Trafford next week, when City visit for the 158th Manchester derby.
“It is a terrific game to recover from,” admitted the Scot.
“It is a massive game for us and something to look forward to. Unfortunately, we have internationals in midweek. To my mind that is crazy but we have to get on with it.
“We have plenty of players who are not involved in international games and they will all play next week.”
Freshness may indeed play a part against City; quality will be even more important. United was desperately short of it at Molineux.
There is no little coincidence in United having lost at Wolves seven years ago when Ferguson’s side was top, and the Midlanders last.
Come May 2004, United lay third behind both Arsenal and Chelsea, while Wolves finished last. For both sides a similar outcome would represent nothing short of disaster from this point.
Wolves – 451 – Hennessey; Elokobi, Berra, Stearman, Zubar; Jarvis, Henry, Milijas (Ebanks-Blake 88), O’Hara (Foley 59) Hammill (Ward 64); Doyle.
United – 442 – Van der Sar; Rafael, Evans (Smalling 65), Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick (Scholes 46), Fletcher, Giggs; Berbatov (Hernandez 65), Rooney.
Attendance – 28,811
Man of the Match – Fletcher
Possession: Wolves 51% – 49% United
Attempts: 6 – 14
On Target: 2 – 4
Corners: 4 – 6
Fouls: 6 – 11