Ferguson knows United need minor miracle to retain the title
Manchester United 2 Swansea 0
This is the afternoon which, in recent years, has generally involved the manager seizing the mic and indulging in one of his silly jigs and a few years ago had Cristiano Ronaldo interviewing Anderson in the dressing room for the cameras, before he climbed into a Bentley and drove out of the stadium for the last time.
Yesterday, Sir Alex Ferguson had to haul Antonio Valencia back from his walk to the dressing room and there was certainly no conviction in his voice when he told those supporters who'd stayed back to prepare for “the celebration of our lives” at Sunderland next Sunday.
The really significant words came in front of the cameras minutes later, when Ferguson employed the last strategy at his disposal — the exertion of not-so-subtle pressure on Mark Hughes, the manager in whose hands United's fragile hopes of a 20th title now rest, when QPR visit Manchester City.
His wish that “Sparky were playing” in that game and his distaste for the way Hughes was sacked in 2009 may be viewed with a certain amount of amusement by the Welshman, a wise and intelligent man who knows the working of Ferguson's mind as well as any. What an extraordinary last twist this could be — Hughes, the man first entrusted with the keys by Abu Dhabi, potentially denying them now.
Hughes will certainly remember that Ferguson was on the telephone to him when Khladoon al-Mubarak sacked him. Neither will he have forgotten the Glaswegian's barbs, which his cool equanimity always made him equal to.
“Sir Alex is sick and tired of people sticking a microphone under his nose and asking him about us rather than United,”
Hughes said when the noisy neighbours were seriously fiddling with the volume dial. “I can understand why he gets a little bit irritated about it, which is quite amusing from my point of view.”
But City do have “probably two” hands on the title, as Ferguson put it. Paul Scholes' opening goal was his fourth since his return to football against City in the depths of winter and at any other time him diverting Michael Carrick's shot in so expertly would have a cause of a bear-hug, a jig or, since it was Scholes, a little hand slapping. There was none of it. Scholes just trundled away, head down, across the pitch where, in 19 years of football, the notion of City being Manchester's predominant side has been an alien concept to him. His teammates summoned little more enthusiasm.
When he took the rebound from Wayne Rooney's shot and curled in a second goal within 13 minutes, Ashley Young ripped the ball back from the net and raced to the centre circle with it, as if a 10-0 win might actually be achievable.
But there was also evidence of one of the critical differences between this United side and the one which clinched a 19th title a year ago. Back then, 20-goal Javier Hernandez was a predatory force to be feared in the penalty area. In this 12-goal campaign, some of those half chances he once made whole have come to nothing — yesterday, poor control on a ball Rooney slid into his path and two headers lifted over Michel Vorm's bar.
And when all was lost, Dimitar Berbatov arrived for what will be in his last 15 minutes of football here. He is the player who once mesmerised Ferguson and whose signature, in the teeth of Hughes' attempts at gazumping on the day the Abu Dhabis moved in across the City, suggested that red domination would be hard to dismantle.
Four years on, in the year Sheikh Mansour earmarked for the championship, it all but has been.