With the sun bearing down on an excitable Old Trafford, it was clear that the main attention would be drawn to the relegation battle, with five teams – Wigan, Blackpool, Wolves, Birmingham and Blackburn – all within one point of each other, and all needing a strong showing to guarantee safety.
On a day where there were ups and downs, positions swapped back and forth throughout a tense 90 minutes. On what was one of the most exciting relegation battles in a long time, it was never quite clear who would be joining West Ham in the Championship until very late in the day. At half time, Wolves looked to be going down after conceding 3 goals at home to Blackburn, virtually guaranteeing their own safety. Wigan were being held by Stoke and Birmingham were doing enough to hold off Tottenham. However, in the dying moments of the League, Tottenham scored a late winner, Wolves pulled back two goals to improve their goal difference, and Wigan scored a dramatic late winner to gain a 1-0 victory at the Britannia Stadium. And what of the opponents of the newly crowned Champions?
Well, they had their own roller-coaster of a day, going in at half time level, they took an unexpected lead early in the second half and when it looked as though they had defied the odds and gained Premier League safety, Manchester United took control, equalising with Anderson, before a cruel own goal and a strong finish from Michael Owen cemented their relegation, joining Birmingham and West Ham in the Championship next season.
However, Sunday 22nd May represented a significant day for United themselves, as a season’s worth of hard work came to fruition in finally having the Premier League trophy in their hands, being crowned Champions for the 19th time, sparking scenes of jubilation amongst fans, staff and players alike. As Edwin Van Der Sar, given the captaincy on his final game at Old Trafford, led out the team for the final time this season, it made the occasion all the more enjoyable, being able to sign off his Premier League career with a victory.
After 6 years of loyal service, all associated with Manchester United are grateful for his contribution and will undoubtedly feel a slight sadness in having lost such an influential figure in the squad. And with that, here are five things that may be taken from a day that produced plenty of drama.
1) Squad selection was appropriate
There is a certain amount of idiocy behind the Premier League ruling regarding squad selection. The notion that a club can be fined for not selecting their “strongest team” is questionable and raises the issue of why teams are allowed a 25 man squad in the first place if they are not to be utilised. Regardless, Sunday provided Sir Alex Ferguson the perfect opportunity to give other members of his side some game time, as well as resting some key players that may well feature next Saturday at Wembley. With an eye on Barcelona, Ferguson was careful not to rest everyone, with the idea that players can be kept fresh by playing them rather than giving them two weeks off. With a side that included Dimitar Berbatov, Anderson, Nani, Evra, Vidic and Scholes, his selection was far from weak, although certainly may be considered makeshift.
Even Wayne Rooney was given a run out for the last minutes of the game, as well as the likes of Rafael Da Silva, Chris Smalling and Michael Owen all registering appearances. It will be interesting to see if Ferguson chooses to use the testimonial as an opportunity to give other squad members a chance to impress for the final, although fans can be rest assured that most of those guaranteed a place in next week’s final will not be risked for Gary Neville’s testimonial. Certain players impressed. Anderson getting on the scoresheet will certainly have been encouraging as well as Chris Smalling enjoying his second half stint at right back. Paul Scholes put through some superb passes and the more game time that Darren Fletcher is able to see before the trip to Wembley, the better.
2) Dimitar Berbatov – Desperately Unlucky
Despite finishing as joint top scorer with Carlos Tevez this season, Dimitar Berbatov has found himself a little pushed back in recent times in the United side. With the emergence of the superb Javier Hernandez, the Bulgarian forward has found himself on the bench more often than he perhaps would have liked. On Sunday he was given the chance to spearhead the United attack and provide the threat going forward. It could be considered an impressive showing, his ball control was of the standard fans had come to expect of him, and his part in the opening goal for Park is not to be ignored. However, despite an energetic showing, his efforts in front of goal were far more frustrating and failed to show the fruits of his labour.
There were times he should have done better, such as when in the 92nd minute he found himself through on goal and could only blast wide. On other occasions he was simply unlucky, such as when a powerful header produced a reaction by Gilks past the hour mark. It was not to be his day. The general consensus is that if Ferguson chooses to play two strikers at Wembley, he will stick with his preferred choice of Hernandez and Rooney. Either way, it does not look likely that Berbatov will find himself starting.