At this time of the season, the Manchester United instinct is to crush the hope of their nearest rivals. Show no weakness. Drive on relentlessly until the job is done. Lose at Wigan Athletic? Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams are simply not programmed to throw away games like this one.
Call off the trophy engravers. The Premier League title race just became interesting again last night, even if took a dire United performance to spark it into life. Ferguson was at a loss to explain why they had failed to perform in a first half in which he admitted his team had been "totally dominated" by Wigan. United are still in the box seat but suddenly, from nowhere, Manchester City have hope.
There are five games left in the season and, with a five-point lead, United will still be hard to catch. This could be their last bad result, one last aberration on the road to the club's 20th title. It is, after all, only their fourth league defeat of the season. But the pressure is back on and the game against Aston Villa on Sunday has huge significance.
Momentum. When United arrived at the DW Stadium last night they had it and they left having been knocked out of their stride by a spirited Wigan team who moved out of the relegation zone for the first time since mid-December. Roberto Martinez called it a "historic night" for his club and he was right. In 14 attempts in the Premier League this was the first time they have taken so much as a point from United.
Wigan's victory was all the more impressive for the fact that they had a Victor Moses goal very harshly disallowed in the first half and it might just have broken their confidence but, as Martinez said, they came out for the second half even more determined. "I loved my players' arrogance," Martinez said. "We were patient on the ball and we played Manchester United eye-to-eye."
There were some fine performances in the Wigan side, not least the goal-scorer Shaun Maloney who struck a wonderful shot from outside the area to beat David De Gea. He was not the only one, though. Gary Caldwell, Moses, Jean Beausejour and Maynor Figueroa were all excellent. Martinez said that this was a team still nursing the injustice of those two offside goals scored against them by Chelsea on Saturday.
United's first-half efforts were best encapsulated in the moment, around midway, that Ferguson stepped up to the touchline and flapped his arms around in the manner that has, for most of his managerial career, denoted fury. It was directed at Wayne Rooney.
On that occasion Rooney responded in a fashion that suggested he was aggrieved. When he was substituted with 25 minutes left he jogged off meekly. The most polite thing you could say about his performance was that he looked exhausted. Neither was this Ryan Giggs's best evening, but you could also say the same of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia.
United were unrecognisable from the team that has taken grip of the title race in spring and torn it from City's grasp. Now that game between the two Manchester clubs at the Etihad Stadium on 30 April once again looms large, providing, of course, that City can stay in touch with their rivals. Ferguson's team have demoralised their rivals with the sheer relentlessness of their performances in the past but that spell has been broken.
It was not until the 19th minute that United had an attempt on goal, a ball through by Michael Carrick to Giggs whose shot was saved by Ali Al-Habsi. It was in this buoyant period for Wigan that you felt they needed to score and so they did. In controversial circumstances it was disallowed by Dowd.
Moses won the corner that led to the goal that never was, dribbling brilliantly around Jonny Evans and hitting a shot that was blocked by Rio Ferdinand. From the corner the Wigan striker stole in towards the near post and headed the ball firmly past De Gea. He was still celebrating when he realised the goal had been chalked off and the game had restarted.
It was not immediately clear what Dowd had seen in the moments that led up to the goal but it emerged that David Richardson, the linesman on the tunnel side at the DW Stadium, had raised his flag for what he regarded as a foul by Gary Caldwell in the goalmouth. Replays showed the Wigan captain backing into De Gea who stumbled backwards over his line.
At best it was a let-off for United, at worst it was another dubious decision in a week when officials have been under heavy scrutiny. The United players were out early after half-time and it felt as if they may well have weathered the best of what Wigan had to throw at them. But Martinez's players came back stronger.
Dowd made a mistake in the build-up to the goal, wrongly giving Wigan a corner when Phil Jones tried to corral Beausejour away from the ball as it ran out of play down the left channel. It should have been a goal kick.
Jones was still protesting the decision when Maloney played the ball short to Beausejour and got it back before embarking on a run from the left that took him across the face of the United box parallel with the goal. He was waiting for the brief window of space to shoot. When he did so, the ball curled around De Gea's reach and inside the left post.
It was a joyous moment for Wigan. Ferguson had already replaced Young with Tom Cleverley and over the next 15 minutes he brought off first Javier Hernandez for Danny Welbeck and then substituted Nani for Rooney. Finally, with 20 minutes of the game left, United got going.
They had a penalty turned down when Figueroa handled Jones's cross from the right. On 76 minutes, Welbeck appeared to react in the area to having his shirt pulled. By the end of the game, Jones was injured and little more than a passenger. Ferguson had already used his three substitutes. It was Wigan who had the best chance in the final 10 minutes when Figueroa and Moses both had shots blocked. United had run out of steam.
Man of the match Maloney.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee P Dowd (Staffordshire).
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