MANCHESTER UNITED 4
- Fletcher 31
- Giggs 38
- Higginbotham (og) 54
- Park 84
STOKE CITY 0
**Manchester United’s 4 goal defeat of Stoke City on the final day was not enough as Chelsea, as expected, destroyed Wigan Athletic at Stamford Bridge to take the Premier League title. Their mammoth 8-0 win over the Latics certainly impressed but United fans could at least look back at the half time state of affairs and lament the overly generous officiating that the West London side have been the beneficiaries of this term.
Sir Alex Ferguson went for a 4-4-2 in attempt to spell out the attacking message to the visitors even though there was an impending feeling of doom among the home faithful. But by the time Old Trafford had managed to shake off any collective pre-match anxiety their hopes suffered a blow when news of a Chelsea goal – scored by Nicolas Anelka with Malouda in an offside position – filtered through.
Dimitar Berbatov had retained a starting place despite his hatful of missed efforts last week and in the first quarter of the game was guilty of missing another hat-trick’s worth of chances. First, he was played through by Rooney and saw his effort blocked by Wilkinson – then, headed a couple of Nani crosses over, the second clipping the top of the crossbar. On the half hour United did get their breakthrough when Ryan Giggs’ corner was met by Vidic and the Serb’s header pinballed off too Stoke defenders, and landed at the feet of Darren Fletcher less than a yard out. Fletcher duly converted.
The Potters’ resistance was far greater than their recent capitulation at Stamford Bridge, but United were still playing well – the next 7 minutes summed up the season, when Chelsea were the beneficiaries of some more refereeing help, Frank Lampard converting a penalty that saw Wigan reduced to ten men.
Gary Neville had a cheeky effort comfortably saved before Ryan Giggs’ doubled the relinquishing champions lead. Dimitar Berbatov did well with a strong forward surge after receiving Rooney’s pass, and drilled a cross across goal. Giggs was there arriving from the right to side foot home from 12 yards and seal the result with 8 minutes of the first half still to play. Rooney could have put his name on the scoresheet after another good piece of play by Berbatov but Huth snuffed it out.
With the end result a formality and all eyes on Stamford Bridge, it was no surprise that with the ascendancy handed to them by the officials, Chelsea ran riot and scored 6 more over a despondent Wigan side that had already conceded 9 in one game in their travels. Rather more surprising was the bizarre nature of the Stoke supporters at Old Trafford. They have attained quite a good reputation for their vocal support at the Brittania but seemed intent on ruining all of that deserved goodwill.
United’s second half performance defied the fact that they knew they would be replaced as Champions as they relentlessly attacked the visitors – Nani had a chance from a Rooney pass and Scholes chipped wide, though it was already 3-0 by then – Fletcher’s clever reverse found Rooney and the forward’s trick was brilliant and unselfish, making space to fire across goal and ex-Red Devil Danny Higginbotham was only able to divert it into his own goal via the crossbar.
Edwin van der Sar was called upon to make two spectacular saves; first from Rory Delap and second from Danny Pugh – that little spell served no purpose than to prove Stokes proper commitment to the game where it had been sorely lacking 2 weeks ago. Ji-Sung Park, on for Rooney after he had pulled up with a groin injury, made it 4 and a confirmed bittersweet last day hammering when he headed in Ryan Giggs’ corner.
The recriminations will now begin regarding United’s own shortcomings in the title race. Lacking guile in midfield? Perhaps. Lacking a convincing alternative for Rooney either in shape or personnel? Probably. Found short after a spell where 8 first team defenders were injured in the winter? Most definitely.
Regardless of the circumstances, pushing for a record breaking fourth consecutive title was always going to be a tough ask because it has never been done before. Chelsea, remember, have only just got their fourth ever. That task was made impossible because of the defining intervention of a Liverpool supporting referee, a Liverpool player who didn’t want Manchester United to win, and another poor refereeing decision with the score at 0-0 at Stamford Bridge in the final game. The worst thing is, this didn’t need to happen. Chelsea may well have won at Old Trafford, may well have won at Anfield, and would no doubt have won today.
Manchester United: Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra Nani, Fletcher, Scholes (Gibson, '62), Giggs, Berbatov (Macheda '62), Rooney (Park, '77).
Stoke City: Begovic, Wilkinson, Shawcross, Huth, Higginbotham (Collins' 69), Delap, Whitehead (Diao '67), Whelan, Etherington, Sidibe (Pugh '69), Fuller.