With the Europa League having been and gone for Manchester United, after being well and truly outclassed by Athletic Bilbao, it was time to focus matters once again on the all important issue of the Premier League title race. With rivals Manchester City not due to play until midweek against Chelsea, the trip to Wolves would have been seen as a vital opportunity to take three points mount pressure on City for there next game.
Prior to kick off, the build up was dominated by events that had occurred the day before, and Bolton and England Under 21 representative Fabrice Muamba collapsed in the FA Cup tie against Tottenham, believed to have gone into cardiac arrest. For all that had witnessed it, it was undoubtedly an incredibly upsetting and distressing time, but all those at the ground and fans across the country and indeed the world gave messages of support and hope in a massive display of solidarity as the wider community that is football came together as the importance of life over all else rightly took priority. Any additional words that I may provide will not differ greatly from all those already said this weekend, but for such circumstances to befall a young man at the prime of his life with a successful career and young family is a stark reminder of the value of our health and life as we have it. Such events have occurred before in recent years in football, unfortunately with lives lost and were it not for the swift actions of all medical staff in attending to Muamba and his subsequent revival, what many had feared most soon turned to hope. Although he currently remains in critical condition, I hope I speak for all fans of football when I say we hope that he finds health once again.
Despite this deeply upsetting occurrence, the show must go on but not without a show of support from both sets of fans and players before kick off on Sunday afternoon. Sir Alex Ferguson set his side with David De Gea in goal, with Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand continuing as the preferred central defensive pairing, with Rafael Da Silva and Patrice Evra on the right and left respectively. In midfield, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick paired up with Antonio Valencia returning to take up his role on the right wing. The line up was completed with Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney forming an attacking triad.
The match kicked off with United looking to take hold of possession early, and did so as expected. Initially both sides found chances to get forward, with little clear cut coming their way, as United started sloppily, giving the ball away on occasion as Wolves looked for a way to get an early lead.
21 minutes in, though, and the early possession was made to count, as United’s first corner resulted in Wayne Rooney firing a ball to the back post, met by Carrick who sided footed across the six yard box, with Jonny Evans free to fire home and give his side a 0-1 lead. The visitors looked to gain confidence from this, aiming to get forward more and press more aggressively, particularly out on the right through Valencia. 39 minutes, and Wolves’ afternoon took a turn for the worse as Zubar, already booked for a late challenge 10 minutes earlier, was shown a second yellow card for another late tackle on Welbeck.
It was less than 5 minutes after that United took advantage, as a quick break away led the ball being played out to Valencia just inside the opposition half. The Ecuadorian charged for goal, using his pace to beat any challenger and despite the support in the box, he carried on with sights firmly on goal, finishing expertly as he moved in on goal at an angle. 0-2 and the game is comfortable.
There was time for another before half time, as Jonny Evans, played a superb long pass out to Valencia on the right, who ran for the box and played the ball into Welbeck, who guided the ball into the corner to give his side a 0-3 lead and provide a risk of a rout.
The second half began much as the first half ended, with United looking to attack early on, refusing to step off. Wolves also threatened with moments of end to end football, but United soon made it 4 as a short corner was played to Rafael, who crossed into the six yard box with a chip for an unmarked Hernandez to head the ball into the ground and into the net.
The result was beyond doubt by this point and the changes began to take place as Pogba replaced Carrick. Minutes later and it was 0-5, as Valencia played a one-two with Welbeck, playing the ball to the back post with Hernandez there to meet it and blast the ball home to complete the scoring. More changes were made, with Evra and Evans taken off to rest and Fabio and Chris Smalling given some playing time. The rest of the match played out with United taking their foot off the pedal slightly, Wolves showing some late fightback in their attempts for a consolation goal with the fans rallying behind them, but it was not to be as United took all three points and made a dent in the goal difference deficit with a 0-5 win. With that here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Antonio Valencia – you were missed
It would be fair to say, that amongst the talent occupying the wings at Old Trafford this season, that Antonio Valencia has seen the most appreciation whenever he has played. After a recent spell of injury, he returned to the starting line up for the trip to Molineux and put in a punishing performance against a relatively poor Wolves side. He spent the afternoon charging up and down the right wing, using his pace and power to provide all sorts of problems for the opposition defence who struggled to handle him. As well as this, his play with team mates and deliveries were superb, having a hand in 2 goals and scoring another. His effectiveness throughout the game had a strong influence in the result and his goal, charging down the right into the box and finishing superbly was almost Ronaldo-esque. His return to fitness will be welcome as United head into the final games of the season, with the aim to wrap up the Premier League title.
2) Jonny Evans – a goal for his efforts
For all the plaudits and acknowledgement of his recent form (albeit reluctantly in some), it was perhaps appropriate that Jonny Evans would emphasise this by scoring his first goal for Manchester United, as he was given plenty of the room in the box to fire in Carrick’s pass. Not only this, but Evans suddenly turned from poacher to midfield maestro, playing a superb pass out to Valencia who went on to set up Welbeck for the third. Linking up with Ferdinand, the defensive pairing were mostly untroubled against Wolves, maintaining a self-assurance in coming away with a clean sheet, particularly when faced with a late threat. A superb performance from Evans.
3) Welbeck and Hernandez scoring, Rooney influential, but where was Berbatov?
With a ten man Wolves struggling to contain the United attack for much of the game, fans will have been pleased to see their side capitalise on the advantage by taking their chances and producing a big scoreline. Hernandez grabbed a brace in a lively performance for the Mexican, with Welbeck finishing nicely just before half time and arguably could have had more in an afternoon in which he was involved in many of United’s attacks, linking up with Valencia for the fifth goal for example. Wayne Rooney was not amongst the scorers but probably deserved one for his efforts on Sunday, as he appeared to get involved in many aspects of the play, providing many avenues of attack and finding a couple of opportunities himself to get on the score card. A worthwhile contribution in a productive day for the front men.
This brings me to a point regarding another of United’s strikers in Dimitar Berbatov. It was recently acknowledged by Sir Alex Ferguson that the Bulgarian would likely be heading for pastures new this Summer, with United believed to be taking up the option of an extra year on his contract so that they may collect a fee. Prior to kick, many fans pointed out his absence from the bench with some bemusement, with the thinking being that if events did not go as planned that he could be called upon. One wonders if with the belief that he will be heading for the exit door, that his game time will now be limited before he moves on. In truth, his discontent at his position in the side is understandable. For a player who was joint top scorer last season and qualities that are welcomed by many among the United faithful, some feel that he has deserved better than to be repeatedly made to sit on the bench this season. Whatever the reason for his absence, if it may indeed just be injury, fans will likely hope to see more of him before his expected move.
4) A red card and a dejected opposition, the game was there for the taking
Since the sacking of Mick McCarthy, stand-in Terry Connor has faced a torrid time of trying to turn things around at his club in their bid to avoid relegation. Although United were in control of the game by the time they got their first goal, one cannot help but imagine that the final result would not quite have been so one-sided had Zubar not got himself sent off. The defender put in two late challenges, earning himself successive yellow cards and a subsequent red as a result. The second in particular, was inexplicable given his awareness that he was already on a caution. Once this occurred, it was clear that Wolves would try and play a more defensive game in damage limitation, something which the visitors were able exploit and were, to the relief of fans, ruthless in their efforts on goal, coming away with five and refusing to step off until the later stages of the game.
5) Four points clear and the goal difference reduced
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect, besides the manner of the victory, will have been the reduction in goal difference. With such a big margin of victory a dent has been made in City’s goals advantage and with a four point gap having opened up at the top, the onus is now on them to come away with three points from Chelsea during the week. Even if the edge may be more psychological than anything, Sir Alex Ferguson will be pleased to have opened up a gap at the top to add pressure in the title race and will be glad that his side did not allow the result to slip by. There is no doubt that he will want to ensure no complacency takes hold as the final games of the season line up, with teams desperate for points likely to be looking for results against United as the season draws to a close. To hit form at this point will be reassuring as fans will hope to see a 20th title brought back to Old Trafford.