It is the misfortune of Michael Carrick that he was born into an English generation which is rich in talented midfielders, so much so that among the stars of the England squad he must often feel like the invisible man. Last night at least, with Fabio Capello in the stands, he stepped out of the shadows.
Carrick scored the winner against possibly the worst team to win the Bundesliga in living memory and averted what would have been one of the least auspicious nights in Old Trafford's glorious European history. United have won their last eight games but against the team from the city that is home to Volkswagen, they trundled – rather than cruised – to victory.
If this United performance was a Volkswagen car it would be dull but safe: a Passat saloon, perhaps. Competent, reliable but low on the excitement scale. The Wolfsburg striker Edin Dzeko scored a goal that, for two minutes and 38 seconds of Wolfsburg's relatively modest history, meant they led at Old Trafford. Ryan Giggs equalised and then Carrick tidied matters up with 12 minutes to spare.
Ferguson's hackles rose afterwards when it was put to him that this was not exactly vintage stuff from United. "I don't know how I'm going to make you happy," he said. "I thought it was a marvellous performance from us." No one but he could argue that, with the exceptions of Wayne Rooney and Giggs, this team are playing as well as they can.
United's gameplan changed after 20 minutes when Michael Owen was withdrawn with a groin strain that means he misses the next three weeks, although United looked better with Dimitar Berbatov. Ferguson is also now alternating his goalkeepers: Ben Foster on Saturday; Tomasz Kuszczak last night with the overriding sense that he does not know who deserves the job in Edwin van der Sar's absence.
It does not help that Ferguson refers to Kuszczak as "Kozluk" – as in Rob Kozluk, the Barnsley defender – which further confuses matters. "He [Kuszczak] had a very good performance last week against Wolves and we thought he deserved to play another game," Ferguson said. "It wasn't going to be last Saturday because we must give support to Ben after a difficult game against Manchester City. This was a good opportunity to play [Kuszczak], but Foster will play on Saturday [against Sunderland]."
Capello's reasons for being in Manchester were reduced when Foster's name did not appear on the teamsheet and they pretty much faded into the drizzle when Owen limped off. For those still insisting he must soon be back in the England squad, the question remains: which of England's fit, in-form strikers would you omit to include the injury-prone, patchy Owen?
As for Carrick, he is still behind Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry in the queue to play for England. Previously this season Ferguson has left Carrick out of the squad altogether and he hinted at his frustrations with the player after the match, observing it often takes until October for Carrick to "get into his stride".
Not that there was much urgency about United last night. They only opened up Wolfsburg once Berbatov was on the pitch. His backheel gave Antonio Valencia a run on goal in the 25th minute and with only goalkeeper Diego Benaglio to beat, albeit from a tight angle, he did not even hit the target. You knew what Old Trafford was thinking: that was the kind of chance Cristiano Ronaldo once tucked away easily. But it was not just Valencia who missed simple chances. Carrick was played in by Berbatov behind Wolfsburg's hesitant back line and hit his shot straight at Benaglio.
Given the mighty struggles that United had with Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen between 1999 and 2002, this was a stroll in comparison. The German league might produce interesting variety in its champions but this team were lightweights. Wolfsburg were overwhelmed at times and they were fortunate to face a United team so out of tune. Of United's least impressive performers, Nemanja Vidic looked most out of sorts. His mistake allowed Zvjezdan Misimovic in for a shot that went straight at Kuszczak and then he was booked for a foul on striker Grafite in the first half. Three minutes from the end of the match, Vidic should have got his second yellow, and another red, for a bad challenge on Dzeko.
On nights such as these it can be difficult to shake United from their torpor; sometimes they need a shock to the system. Dzeko, 23, is still a raw talent but for one so powerful in the air it was remiss of United to allow him to go up against Patrice Evra. The quick thinking of Wolfsburg's Japanese midfielder Makoto Hasebe when the Hungarian referee played advantage around United's area on 56 minutes made the goal. Hasebe picked out Dzeko and he guided his back-post header past Kuszczak.
The men and women of Lower Saxony in the away enclosure at Old Trafford had scarcely reached the second verse of their song when Anderson was fouled outside the Wolfsburg area by their captain Josue. Giggs' free-kick was, by his own admission, not his best work but it deflected in.
The winning goal was worked from the left flank from Rooney to Berbatov and on to Giggs who had the good sense to look away from goal to see Carrick unmarked on the edge of the area. He swept the ball first time past Benaglio. That was the end of Wolfsburg, although United can do a lot better.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia (Fletcher, 82), Carrick, Anderson, Giggs; Owen (Berbatov, 20), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Brown, Nani, F Da Silva.
Wolfsburg (4-1-3-2): Benaglio; Riether, Madlung, Costa, Schafer; Josue; Hasebe (Ziani, 73), Misimovic, Gentner; Grafite (Martins, 82), Dzeko. Substitutes not used: Lenz (gk), Santana, Pekarik, Dejagah, Barzagli.
Referee: V Kassai (Hungary).
Man United's result: 15 Sept Besiktas 0 Man United 1; Last night Man United 2 Wolfsburg 1.
Man United's remaining fixtures: 21 Oct CSKA (a), 3 Nov CSKA (h), 25 Nov Besiktas (h), 8 Dec Wolfsburg (a).Reuse content