Scholes' late strike puts Manchester United back on top
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0 Manchester United 1
Paul Scholes marked his century of Premier League goals to frustrate a defiant performance by Wolves on Saturday night – and it was enough to redeem one of Manchester United's less inspired displays, as well as opening a two-point lead over Chelsea and Arsenal at the top of the table.
Scholes pounced on a mistake by Jody Craddock with 17 minutes remaining, the former England player's winner prompting an instant eulogy from Sir Alex Ferguson. "He is a fantastic player and 100 League goals for a midfielder is outstanding," the United manager said. "With the opportunity that arose, he was the best player to take it."
Ferguson, who was without the injured Wayne Rooney, insisted the champions had deserved to win – a claim which prompted his opposite number Mick McCarthy to suggest he was viewing the contest "through rose-tinted spectacles" – although he conceded that Wolves missed an "outstanding chance" in stoppage time.
Scholes, of all people, played Sam Vokes on when United were screaming for an offside flag. Fortunately for the 35-year-old centurion, the substitute skied the ball into the South Bank with the goal at his mercy. "Scholesy was probably playing him on," the United captain Rio Ferdinand admitted, "but fortunately for us the old fella got us a goal at the other end."
Ferguson suggested Vokes would "suffer" for his wastefulness. For McCarthy, the fact that the Welshman had come on only minutes earlier was no excuse. "Sam practises those day in, day out, and it doesn't matter how long you've been on the pitch," the Wolves manager said. "We've played well and got nothing out of it, but while we've got breath in our bodies we'll keep scrapping."
Without Rooney, who has scored more League goals than Wolves this season, United often struggled to break down their relegation-threatened opponents. Indeed, they might have faced an embarrassment like their defeat to a Kenny Miller goal here six years earlier but for a first-half miss of Vokes proportions by Stephen Ward when Wolves belied their lowly status.
Rooney was not even on the bench, from which he sprang to such telling effect during the Carling Cup final last Sunday, having aggravated a knee strain during England's midweek friendly against Egypt. Ferguson suggested before the match that the striker was now "a doubt" to face Milan in Wednesday's second leg of their Champions' League tie at Old Trafford, a situation he described as "a big blow".
Wolves fans may have been tempted to ask whether Rooney's absence meant Ferguson was guilty of fielding a weakened side, the offence for which their club incurred a suspended fine of £25,000 after McCarthy sent out a fringe players' XI against United in December. Despite a 3-0 defeat on that occasion, McCarthy felt vindicated when his first choices, suitably refreshed, beat Burnley a few days later.
This time there were no such selection dilemmas for McCarthy, while for Ferguson the indisposition of his talisman was partially offset by the sight of Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in tandem for only the seventh time this season. Both teams deployed a solitary striker in Kevin Doyle and Dimitar Berbatov respectively.
In the first half at least, Doyle appeared better suited to the role, giving Vidic as torrid a time as Gabriel Agbonlahor initially did at Wembley. The former Reading player dragged a fifth-minute chance wide, yet shortly after the half-hour he drove at United's rearguard from the halfway line and reached the penalty area before feeding the ball wide to Matt Jarvis. The winger cut it back to the onrushing David Jones, but the one-time United reserve's hopes of scoring against his first club were dashed by a sliding challenge by Michael Carrick which drew the sting from his shot.
Two minutes later, Wolves carved out an even better opening. Jarvis's cross from the left picked out Ward unmarked in the six-yard area. It came at a height that should have been meat and drink for a player who came to Molineux as a forward. To the great relief of Edwin van der Sar, Ward headed the ball into his waiting arms.
McCarthy was "thrilled" with his side's first-half showing, but there was a fresh resolve about United straight after half-time. The increasingly influential Scholes appealed for a penalty when Ronald Zubar's challenge deprived him of possession, while Berbatov had a goalbound shot blocked by Christophe Berra.
The pressure eventually coaxed an error from Craddock, who lost his footing slightly as he cleared Nani's low cross and succeeded only in directing the ball to Scholes. Jinking to his right to make space for the shot, the veteran angled the ball across Marcus Hahnemann and into the far corner, a landmark moment for an enduring talent.
Referee: Peter Walton
Man of the match: Scholes