Wigan Athletic 0 Manchester United 2: Ferguson savours coronation as Reds prepare for Moscow march
The big days tend to bring out the giddiness in Sir Alex Ferguson. Witness the jig he essayed down the touchline at the JJB Stadium in the style of a tipsy grandfather at a wedding; the hearty singalong with his club's fans and, finally, the bold statement.
Yesterday, as Ferguson savoured his 10th Premier League title, the Manchester United manager said that his team, and not Chelsea, had the momentum to win the Champions League.
Ferguson's afternoon was accompanied by the thunder and lightning of an angry North-west sky to match the controversy of his team's victory, but even though it rained on United's parade it was a parade nonetheless. Their title was sealed by a goal from Ryan Giggs in his 758th game, which equalled Sir Bobby Charlton's appearance record for the club. Later the old boy himself turned up to present the trophy to Giggs in the latest chapter in the 19-trophy story Ferguson has written at this club.
Earlier, as the heavens emptied and the tension built, the United manager donned a white rain mac to protect himself. Sometimes it seems that only the intervention of the proverbial men in white coats can stop modern English football's original mad genius. With the Champions League final looming in Moscow on 21 May, he seems unstoppable. Having beaten Chelsea to the title on the final day of the season, Ferguson proclaimed that his team had the edge for the game in nine days' time.
Now it was, Ferguson said, a case of United "bouncing all the way" to the Luzhniki stadium. "We are relaxed about it," he said. "Cup finals are supposed to be difficult anyway. It won't be easy. But there's a good feeling about this team." Asked about his retirement tentatively – there is no other way to pose that question – he looked around at the players celebrating and replied with another question: "How would you do without this?"
Later on, Ferguson elaborated further on his reasons for wishing to stay in the game. "That wife of mine just bullies me and kicks me out the door every morning," he said, warming to a favourite theme of his on the "formidable" Cathy Ferguson. "She says to me this morning, 'I can't put up with this tension'. I say, 'Come on, I've won nine titles before'. You know she doesn't watch the actual game? She watches the score on Teletext."
This was Ferguson at his brilliant, gregarious best when there is a joke for everyone and stories abound, although you get the feeling that he will wake up this morning concerned only with 21 May and the brink of another stupendous achievement. He said that should this team go on to win in Moscow they will be his greatest side ever, which, even in the rapture of victory was no flippant comment. He means it. And that is some plaudit for this group of brilliant players, young and old alike.
None in the outfield older than Giggs, who turns 35 in November, and whom Ferguson later described in terms of a racehorse. "As soon as the rain came down, I knew I should get Giggsy on because he loves the soft ground," Ferguson said. Unfortunately, unlike the infamous Rock Of Gibraltar, this is one thoroughbred that Ferguson will not be able to put out to stud come the end of his career. There will surely never be another like Giggs, who found the space in the middle of Wigan's defence to take a pass from Wayne Rooney and slot in the decisive second goal with 10 minutes left.
Giggs is the boy whom Ferguson signed personally on his 14th birthday; the player once described returning home that day in 1987 to see his future manager's golden Mercedes parked outside his mother's house in Salford. Ferguson was inside waiting with the schoolboy forms that were the beginning of an alliance that has yielded 10 Premier League titles. No player apart from Giggs has been there for all of them with Ferguson and it has not always been an easy ride, but today it is Giggs whose record eclipses that of any English footballer in history.
If Cristiano Ronaldo wanted a lesson in the respect this game can confer on a man, then he would do well to look at Giggs as the Portuguese prepares for another summer in which his name will be batted around by the biggest clubs in Europe. Ronaldo scored the penalty that set United on their way yesterday, his 41st goal of an incredible season, but we did not see the best of him. There were fits of anger, dubious theatrical limps and far too much whingeing on a day that should have been testament to his remarkable talent.
And so to the controversy. The Wigan manager, Steve Bruce, was uncompromising in his criticism of the referee Steve Bennett's "unbelievable" performance. In order of disbelief, first was Bennett's failure to award Wigan a penalty when Rio Ferdinand handled Antonio Valencia's shot on 23 minutes. Then came Bennett's refusal to send Paul Scholes off on 36 minutes for a second booking for a foul on the same player. Bruce despaired at the penalty given to United for Emmerson Boyce's foul on Rooney.
United were living dangerously: they were hustled out of it in the opening stages, especially by Wilson Palacios in midfield, who Scholes fouled for his first booking. When Scholes later barged Valencia it should have been a second yellow. The penalty was only just justifiable, but Bennett should have given United another when Titus Bramble tripped Scholes in the second half.
Ronaldo tapped home his penalty, although Chris Kirkland was otherwise outstanding, stopping shots from Rooney and Carlos Tevez when United should have sealed the game before the hour. Wigan were the better team and were about to make it a difficult final 10 minutes for United when Giggs took a pass for Rooney and slipped a shot past Kirkland.
Bringing on Giggs and Owen Hargreaves settled the ship and stopped you wondering whether every Scholes tackle would result in his dismissal. Ferguson signed off to the press with a sarcastic but jovial thanks. "You've enthralled me all season with your honesty, integrity ... and nonsense." Someone had the wit for a brave reply: "Likewise."
Goals: Ronaldo pen (32) 0-1; Giggs (80) 0-2
Wigan (4-4-2): Kirkland; Boyce, Bramble, Scharner, Figueroa; Valencia, Palacios, Brown (King, 81), Koumas; Bent (Sibierski, 70), Heskey. Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Taylor, Skoko
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes (Hargreaves, 67), Park (Giggs, 68); Rooney, Tevez. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Silvestre, Saha.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Wigan Athletic Palacios, Heskey, Valencia, Valencia; Manchester United Scholes, Rooney
Man of the match: Palacios.