Wimbledon brought forward this fixture to help their opponents' European Cup hopes but their generosity ended there. Eager, obdurate, they were everything you would expect them to be last night and they came mighty close to inflicting substantial damage to Manchester United's championship hopes.
United supplanted Liverpool at the top of the Premiership but only after undergoing a thorough examination of their resolve. They hit the bar three times, went behind to Chris Perry's goal on the hour and only secured the three points by scoring through Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole in the last 15 minutes.
"It was a kind of game that drains you," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. "As a manager you feel like you've played yourself."
The two teams had met on Saturday in a rousing FA Cup tie that ended 1-1. Then United's team bore a resemblance to their reserves whereas last night Gary Pallister, David Beckham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer returned to bring an air or normality.
Wimbledon had changed, too, but in a way that was more fundamental than just the absence of the injured Vinnie Jones. In the Cup they had gone hammer and tongs at the home team while, last night, they packed the defence allowing United to come at them.
It could have brought their downfall within the first 45 minutes. Twice Giggs squandered opportunities, but if United were tormented by the Welshman's profligacy their tension was hardly eased by their ill luck. Solskjaer beat Neil Sullivan with shots after 27 and 36 minutes but on each occasion the ball crashed against the bar.
Wimbledon are not a team to let off the hook and they demonstrated this with a vengeance. Marcus Gayle had suggested there might be venom in their attack with a delightful piece of skill after 53 minutes when he was only denied a goal by Peter Schmeichel's hand that tipped his shot on to the bar. The reprieve lasted just seven minutes. Alan Kimble took a corner on the left, Robbie Earle flicked on and Perry stuck out a foot to divert the ball past Schmeichel.
It appeared that it would not be United's night until a goal arrived from an unlikely source. Beckham took a corner that looked short and misdirected but Giggs flicked a back-header into the far corner of the net.
Old Trafford bayed its encouragement, the red shirts surged forward and Cole missed two straightforward chances. With his third he was sure, however, sweeping in a rebound from close range after Solskjaer had forced a save out of Sullivan.
"Any one of a number of teams could win the title," Ferguson said. "It could be one of those seasons where you hold your breath." It was definitely a night for doing so.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Clegg, G Neville, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes (Cole 63), Giggs; Cantona, Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: McClair, Poborsky, Casper, Van der Gouw (gk).
Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Blackwell, Perry, Kimble; Jupp, Leonhardsen, Earle, Perry; Gayle (Holdsworth, 79), Ekoku (Goodman, 79) Substitutes not used: McAllister, Harford, Murphy (gk).
Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).Reuse content