There’s the old football cliché about ‘taking each match as it comes’, as if focus on the big prize could somehow diminish the here and now. But as Manchester United chalked off another win on Sunday, romping to a five goal victory and a four point Premier League lead, manager Sir Alex Ferguson returned to the trusted theme. With just nine games to go, the 70-year-old Scot is very much in title chasing mode, chalking off each game as time slowly runs out of Manchester City’s challenge.
Indeed, United has just six fixtures before the 30 April clash with City at Eastlands – a game that may yet be instrumental in the title’s destination, although with the Reds threatening to pull away, Sky’s wish for a dramatic late season decider may become irrelevant first. In the team’s current belligerent mood it will surprise few if Ferguson’s outfit secures a maximum 18 points before making the short trip to east Manchester in seven week’s time.
On Sunday Ferguson’s side was not at it’s best – in truth that has so rarely come in the current campaign – but still managed to put five past Terry Connor’s hapless Wolverhampton Wanderers. The display brings to 70 the number of goals scored in the league season, and more than 100 in all competitions. Free flowing football has been at a premium, but the Reds still know how to hit the net – and rack up the points.
Indeed, Ferguson was far from satisfied with United’s display in the Midlands, but took comfort in reducing City’s goal difference advantage, should the title come down to that particular differentiator, and the marker laid down.
“The number of goals was very important and it could be significant by the end of season,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“We’ve got the goal difference deficit with Manchester City down by five to three and we hope we can catch them up. There are 10 games left now and it’s just a matter of cutting off the games one by one until we end up with no games left and hopefully we achieve what we want to achieve. We expect it to go the wire, put it that way. We always hope for the best and fear for the worst.”
“The performance was OK, I didn’t think it was anything special. It wasn’t great and the scoreline makes it looks like it was comprehensive but our finishing was good. As we always find here, Wolves always make it difficult for you. I mean, I think we’ve taken our goals well, it has to be said, but it was an OK performance.”
Ferguson may have been less than impressed with United’s performance, one in which the Reds conspicuously eased off after half-time with the game already won, but the pressure will be felt at Eastlands nonetheless. City’s fixture with in-form Chelsea in Manchester on Wednesday night has now become a pivotal, potentially season-defining, fixture. Should City drop points, the advantage will be squarely in United’s court.
Moreover, Ferguson will be satisfied with the spread of performances at Molineux: Jonny Evans, superb in defence once again; Paul Scholes impeccable as United’s deep-lying midfielder creator; Wayne Rooney pulling the strings at ‘number 10’; and Antonio Valencia utterly devastation on the right-wing. Javier Hernández hardly gets a mention in dispatches, but scored a well taken brace anyway.
No European hangover for United, then, with the Reds hammering Wolves for the second time this season. Earlier in the campaign Champions League frustration after defeat to FC Basel was swiftly redirected toward the Midlanders and a 4-1 beating at Old Trafford.
Over to City and that fixture with
Roberto Di Matteo John Terry’s side on Wednesday, and then a tricky looking away match with Stoke City the following weekend. The Blues could be, of course, be two points clear of United before Ferguson’s side takes to the field next Monday night against Fulham, but City will have to buck recent form to pull off two victories from that brace of games.
“They (City) have a big game on Wednesday of course,” added Ferguson.
“Chelsea are back to form so it will be really interesting. The important thing was for us to do our job. There are nine games left and we have to keep whittling them down. Eventually the games run out and hopefully we will achieve what we want.”
Star striker Rooney echoed his manager’s sentiments, quickly moving on from United’s comprehensive defeat to Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League and to domestic matters. Playing deep behind the free-running Hernández, Rooney was afforded the freedom of Molineux to pick passes and pull Wolves’ slipshod defence around.
Indeed, Rooney’s form and fitness will remain crucial to United over the next two months, both in terms of goals and performances. The former Evertonian retains a fair number of critics, but in truth, United rarely plays well without the £30 million striker in the side.
Yet, Rooney’s may not be the pivotal contribution judging by Sunday’s performance, when Ecuadorian Valencia turned in a game of outstanding pace, power and creativity. Sky’s man-of-the-match gong may have gone to Rooney, but few supporters would have handed it to anybody bar the mild-mannered former Wigan Athletic flier.
“He could be very important,” said Ferguson of £14 million winger Valencia.
“His form before he got the injury was outstanding. Now he is back we hope he stays back fit. He is such an honest, hard-working player. You get two sides to Antonio. He is prepared to work really hard. He can tackle, he can run, but he can also beat a man. He has got everything really.”
Poor Stephen Ward, the Wolves left-back who was repeatedly exposed to Valencia’s searing pace and ability to beat a man in a one-on-one situation. Valencia’s 43rd minute goal that ended the match as a contest, with the hosts already down to 10, was a case study in counter-attacking football and decisive finishing that perhaps only the Ecuadorian could have executed. Not content with scoring, the former Wigan man also laid on two of United’s five goals.
But it was left to Rooney to surmise a game that kick started United’s momentum after the disappointment of European exit. Bilbao may have exposed United’s limitations, but if a jolt of cold, hard, reality was needed then it is the domestic campaign that may benefit. With no other trophies to secure, United must claim the title for the season to not drift into failure.
“Thursday was a disappointing night for us all but we knew it was important that we bounced back well,” admitted Rooney, who didn’t score at Molineux, much to his obvious frustration, but has 14 goals in the past 11 fixtures.
“To come away with three points so convincingly means it’s a great day for us. We knew it was an opportunity today to score goals. I’ve said before, in the Premier League we’re playing really well. We’re playing some great stuff and getting the results we need. I’m sure that if can keep doing that it’ll be a good season for us.”
It may just get even better if Chelsea can pull off a result at Eastlands. For once, United supporters will be fully behind the loathsome Terry, and his west London mercenaries. One game at a time, perhaps, but some mean more than others.