These are strange days in Manchester. For the first time in a decade, the Old Trafford faithful will not find their club's name in the top two of the final standings. No big deal, you might think, but there is something oddly symbolic about Sir Alex Ferguson's team no longer occupying the front row of the grid.
The point acquired in yesterday's low-key goalless draw with Charlton mattered little, as Liverpool defeated Ipswich Town and secured the runners-up spot. As a result of finishing third, United will now have to pre-qualify for next season's Champions' League. This is like the teacher's pet having to curtail his summer holidays to re-sit an exam.
One man who grew accustomed to winning trophies on a yearly basis is Denis Irwin, who was playing his last game following 12 fruitful years with the club. His farewell match, for which he was made captain, was watched by David Beckham, who will be going nowhere in the near future. The England skipper has pledged his future to the club in a three-year deal worth a reported £90,000 per week.
After the final whistle, the United manager admitted his team were disappointed not to have won anything this season but promised the necessary steps would be taken in the summer. "We'll come back stronger," Ferguson said, before suggesting that changes were afoot. "We're going to bring in players who want to fight for this club." The broom, it would seem, will accompany the cheque book.
Laurent Blanc, who played well again yesterday, looks like he might postpone his retirement plans and stay on for one more year. Following Irwin out of Old Trafford, however, are Raimond van der Gouw and Ronny Johnsen. More, including Juan Sebastian Veron, could follow.
United have not exactly had a bad season, but you do sense that they have been found out a little in recent months. Yesterday, Charlton were unlucky not to leave with all three points, as their strike force of Jason Euell and Kevin Lisbie created – and missed – several first-half chances. With 25 minutes gone, Euell latched on to a through-ball from Graham Stuart, only to see his goal-bound effort brilliantly saved low down by Fabien Barthez.
Within minutes, United's tired-looking defence let Lisbie run down the left flank unopposed and set himself up for a good scoring opportunity. It needed a brave interception from Phil Neville, to save the day. Lisbie will still be kicking himself for getting in the way of Jorge Costa six minutes before the break, and thus ruining the easiest of the afternoon's openings.
The home side looked a little hungrier after the restart, but not even Ryan Giggs' introduction for the final half-hour could inspire a win. United went closest when Paul Scholes found Diego Forlan on 65 minutes and the Uruguayan forced a wonderful reflex save from Kiely with a left-foot half-volley. Moments later, the unlucky Forlan tried his luck with a low, rasping right-foot shot, but this time he was wide.
Then came the moment Irwin must have been dreading. The substitutes' board was readied, the capacity crowd rose to their feet, and John O'Shea replaced one of United's longest serving players. Following a career in which he has won every major club honour imaginable, Irwin's number was up.
Keane would have liked to offer his fellow countryman a farewell goal, but his shot was scrambled off the line in injury time. This was not United's day; or for that matter their season.
Manchester United 0 Charlton Athletic 0
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