Manchester United regained the summit of the Premier League with a hard-fought victory in the midlands. With Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen injured, Sir Alex Ferguson deployed Dimitar Berbatov as the lone striker as Paul Scholes’ goal 72nd minute was enough to take three points. It could so easily have been different.
Ferguson’s decision to isolate the Bulgarian almost backfired as Wolverhampton Wanderers missed two glorious chances at Molineaux.If the Scot cannot play two strikers against relegation threatened Wolves – who played a full reserve team at Old Trafford earlier this season – then when can he?
Indeed, the animated Scot spent much of the opening period gesticulating wildly at his players as the Bulgarian cut a desolate figure, with Antonio Valencia and the returning Nani unable to offer support from wide areas.
United at least created chances even if the team lacked penetration in the opening minutes, with Nani and Darron Gibson firing wide in the first quarter.
But it was perhaps the home side with the best opportunity of the first half as Steven Ward headed straight at van der Sar when a goal beckoned for Wolves’ left-back. How he lived to regret it.
With Gary Neville on for Wes Brown at half-time, and a few choice words no doubt spoken by the manager, United looked more purposeful in the opening minutes of the second period.
Valencia, clearly frustrated in the opening half, created the first opportunity of the second period, exchanging passes with Berbatov before the Bulgarian fired wide. Then Patrice Evra, bursting into the home box forced a good save out of Marcus Hannemann as United pushed for the goal.
On the hour Ferguson finally introduced a second striker with Senegalese youngster Mame Biram Diouf coming on for the disappointing Gibson and United pushing four players into attacking areas. It perhaps should have happened earlier.
But the home side was never out of the game and continued to play with plenty of purpose, with Vidic booked for a cynical foul on 58 minutes as the match took on the a cup tie feel these teams missed on quarter-final weekend.
Just as United looked to be heading for a disappointing draw, Paul Scholes came up with the crucial goal. Although the former-England international rarely ventured forward the midfielder latched onto Nani’s pass and took full advantage of some poor defending by Christophe Berra to fire home from six yards.
Nani made way for the effervescent Ji-Sung Park, who added some needed energy to United’s attack, although Diouf wasted two good opportunities as the Reds failed to close out the game.
Wolves threw on three more strikers in former-Red Sylvain-Ebankes Blake, Andy Keogh and youngster Sam Vokes but although the home side tried to apply pressure United’s first-choice defensive pair of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand stood firm. Just about.
Then, as injury time ticked down, Vokes blew the chance to equalise as the Welshman fired over from just six yards with only van der Sar to beat. It would have been a devastating blow to United’s hopes. Such are the margins between Premier League glory and disappointment.
“Scoring goals is what you need to do to win games, and thankfully today it fell to me,” said Scholes, whose strike was the midfield genius’ 100th in the Premier League.
“It’s a good time to go top of the league, a 1-0 win is exactly what we need at this stage of the season.”
Ferguson, who believes Wayne Rooney will miss United’s second leg match with AC Milan on Wednesday, will need more of the same from Scholes if United is to progress into the quarter final.
But with Chelsea not in action until Sunday, United sit ominously on top of the Premier League tonight with just nine games to go.
More to follow….