City beware: United are back in the habit of leaving it late

Manchester United 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
Click to follow
The Independent Football

He has overseen a few late victories in his 24 years in charge of Manchester United, with Sheffield Wednesday and Bayern Munich springing to mind most readily, so Saturday's drama against Wolves was nothing out of the ordinary on Sir Alex Ferguson's landmark day. It was timely, though, given Manchester United's opponents on Wednesday.

Three of last season's four derby games against Manchester City were settled in United's favour in stoppage time, and Park Ji-Sung's late winner that saved a lacklustre display against Mick McCarthy's team will not have gone unnoticed at Eastlands. "We have done this so many times you simply have to admire the perseverance," said Ferguson.

There was little else to admire on the latest anniversary of his Old Trafford tenure. Despite the South Korean's two goals – he also scored against Wolves in United's Carling Cup win last month – the game will be remembered largely for the brief appearance of Owen Hargreaves, who was making his first start since Chelsea were the opponents in September 2008.

The England international lasted just five minutes before limping off with hamstring trouble after the slightest exertion on the right flank. "It was a disaster," said Ferguson, although at least there was no repeat of the two career-threatening knee injuries suffered by the midfielder. Ferguson had played down the chances of Hargreaves returning despite the player's surgeon suggesting, curiously, that he would feature against West Bromwich last month.

Ferguson had rested Ryan Giggs, started with Paul Scholes on the bench and was forced to send out a patched-up side that also lacked Dimitar Berbatov, one of several players struck down by the virus plaguing the club, and the injured Nani. The globe-trotting Wayne Rooney, meanwhile, was holed up at Nike's base in Portland, Oregon. His carbon footprints are not likely to be seen at Old Trafford until the Wigan game in a fortnight – at the earliest.

Even given these absentees, it was odd to throw Hargreaves straight in. "We took a gamble with Owen Hargreaves," Ferguson conceded. "We thought by doing that it would give us a compact midfield with experience. But he only lasted five minutes. It was a disaster. He has hurt his hamstring, which is possibly because of a lack of match fitness. Maybe a bit of anxiety over his first game had a bit to do with it too."

Defender John O'Shea backed Hargreaves to bounce back from the latest setback. "We feel so sorry for him," said O'Shea. "He was so looking forward to it and we were really excited for him as well after all the hard work he's put in. But he'll be back again, no doubt about that."

Wolves, in contrast both to United and to the weakened team McCarthy fielded here last year, made no changes to the line-up that had accounted for Manchester City the previous weekend and they should have taken something from the game.

The visitors had looked the livelier team before conceding Park's first goal just before half-time, when the South Korean capitalised on Darren Fletcher's perfect pass. McCarthy responded after the interval with an attacking double-substitution, introducing Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Steven Fletcher. The former levelled the scores less than two minutes later, scoring between Edwin van der Sar's legs.

Fletcher scuffed a chance to give Wolves the lead and Park made him pay when he drifted in from the right three minutes into stoppage-time and beat Marcus Hahnemann with his left foot. Pretty unconvincing stuff, yet United's unbeaten run now stands at 24 games and they have hardly got started.

But will Wolves be able to get it out of their system? "Well, we've got Arsenal on Wednesday so we'll have to," said a rueful McCarthy, mindful no doubt that Wolves also lost to an injury-time goal against Arsenal last April.

Match facts

Man of the match Park Match rating 6/10

Referee P Dowd (Staffs)

Att 75,285