If Rafael Benitez nurtured any faint hope that this might be the match in which Manchester United's title procession stumbled then he was brutally disabused of any such optimism last night. No team is capable of coming back with the verve and style of Sir Alex Ferguson's team and no team tramples the hopes of their rivals quite so fiercely.
In order to quell Wigan Athletic's local uprising, Ferguson was obliged to go for the nuclear option and brought on his rebellious substitute Carlos Tevez to lead the fightback just before the hour. The one-man Argentine protest unit led the way with a equaliser, Michael Carrick scored the winner and no sooner had the dust settled then United were gripped in the mother of all rows over Tevez's future.
It was started by Ferguson and continued with more counter-claim from Tevez's advisors but for all the friction involved you imagine that this disputatious state is how the United manager likes it best at this stage of the season. Last night United were frantic, relentless. Harassed and pressured into mistakes by Wigan in the first half, they held on until their opponents ran out of steam before launching a clinical counter-action.
A draw against Arsenal on Saturday will be enough to deliver the Premier League trophy into Ferguson's hands for the 11th time but only after Steve Bruce had come close to breaking years of tradition at Wigan. The home side's record against United before last night was eight straight defeats – the 2006 Carling Cup final included – but this time Benitez could be absolutely certain that Bruce was not doing anyone any favours.
His team forced Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic into some uncharacteristic mistakes before the latter allowed Hugo Rodallega to score in the 28th minute. Wigan's five-man midfield demonstrated that United are not immune to a team of willing runners and stout hearts although Liverpool may wonder what might have been if Bruce's side had maintained the pace for the whole game. Once Ferguson had unleashed his fearsome foursome on Wigan, there was an inevitability about the result.
On 59 minutes, Tevez joined Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo as Ferguson gambled on a complete all-out attack to secure the equaliser. Within two minutes, Tevez had scored a brilliant goal and United were on their way. Unlike Sunday, he did not seek out the United hierarchy in the stand to make his point and he did not need to: the United fans were soon making it for him.
There was no doubting the contribution from Tevez, but it was harder to measure the value of Ronaldo's night's work. As Ferguson said afterwards, Ronaldo might have a had a hat-trick were it not for all his carelessness in front of goal and in the first half, as he found himself tightly marked, the United winger was once more protesting theatrically. This was an unfamiliar scenario for United in a stadium where they secured the title last season against a manager, Bruce, who is a former captain at Old Trafford and an owner in Dave Whelan who simply reveres Ferguson. The United manager was the guest of honour when the JJB Stadium was opened in 1999 and at times last night he must have wished that he had never had bothered.
The warning signs were there in the third minute when Evans fell over and allowed Antonio Valencia a free run on Van der Sar's goal, the Ecuadorian miscuing his shot when he clipped Vidic's leg mid-run. Evans in particular looked uncertain on his feet, slipping to let Rodallega run at goal before the Colombian scored in the 28th minute. It was an embarrassment for Vidic that he even got the chance.
A long ball from Lee Cattermole was met by Vidic under pressure from the Colombian and as they landed neither player was sure where the ball had dropped. Rodallega reacted first and swiped a shot inside Van der Sar's near post. Wigan deserved their lead.
United had their chances, notably a Rooney header from Berbatov's cross that went inexplicably wide on ten minutes. A four-pass sequence gave Carrick a chance he clipped over the bar. In the warm-up before the game, Ronaldo had chipped a bottle of Lucozade 20 yards off the pitch with the technique and imagination we are accustomed to from him. Yet in that first half some of his touches were bad enough to embarrass him into chasing back to win possession.
When finally Tevez got his chance on 59 minutes, his goal was beautifully instinctive, reflecting the sharpness which he brings the moment he steps onto the pitch. Carrick struck a low cross that looked like a miss-hit shot and, with the inside of his heel, Tevez directed the ball in at the near post.
Tails up, United came back into it with Tevez's energy felt throughout the team. Carrick's winner was worked from Vidic to Ronaldo and on from John O'Shea before he hit a delightfully controlled shot into the top corner of Richard Kingson's goal. In those final minutes Ronaldo might have added another but shot wildly over the bar. Still Wigan came back and from their last corner of the game Ronaldo redeemed himself by heading clear. On the bench, all was forgiven and United were a point from the title.
Wigan Athletic (4-5-1): Kingson; Melchiot, Bramble, Boyce, Figueroa; Valencia, Cattermole, Brown, N'Zogbia (Mido, 82), Scharner; Rodallega. Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Edman, Watson, De Ridder, Koumas, Kapo.
Manchester United (4-3-3): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Vidic, Evans, Evra; Anderson (Tevez, 58), Carrick, Scholes (Giggs, 75); Ronaldo, Berbatov (Park, 88), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), R Da Silva, Neville, Nani.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire)
The title run-in
Manchester United: Sat 16 May, Arsenal (h) 12:45; Sun 24 May, Hull City (a) 16:00
Liverpool: Sun 17 May, West Bromwich Albion (a) 13:30; Sun 24 May, Tottenham Hotspur (h) 16:00Reuse content