When he used the term "déjà vu" to encapsulate a familiar tale of wasted opportunities for Wolves, manager Mick McCarthy might equally have been summing up the story of Manchester United's victory. For the champions' unconvincing scrape at Molineux was eerily reminiscent of another single-goal success, almost exactly two years earlier, across the Midlands at Derby.
On that occasion, against opponents in greater distress than Wolves, United also scored the only goal in the final 20 minutes to prise the points from a contest in which they frequently rode their luck. Just as Paul Scholes' 100th Premier League goal did on Saturday, it restored them to the summit and provided the impetus necessary to retain the title.
As in 2008, there is a six-pointer with Chelsea in April, this time at Old Trafford, and a place in the Champions League final to pursue, resuming on Wednesday at home to Milan. United, then, are old hands at winning when below par and steeped in the demands of fighting on two fronts. The question now is whether they are sufficiently well equipped for history to repeat itself.
That afternoon at Pride Park, Cristiano Ronaldo struck the winner. Wayne Rooney's scoring feats have gone a long way towards compensating for his defection, yet with the England striker nursing a swollen knee and Dimitar Berbatov operating as a lone front-runner on a rutted surface, United's striking options suddenly appeared ominously limited.
Michael Owen is out for the season; hence Sir Alex Ferguson's dismay at Rooney's providence-tempting outing for England in a friendly last week. Danny Welbeck is on loan at Preston, Federico Macheda is still recovering from injury and Mame Biram Diouf showed in a 28-minute cameo here that his is a raw talent in need of refinement.
Rooney is likely to miss the Milan match. When Ferguson's assistant, Mike Phelan, contributed to the prattle of wounded knee by questioning whether the Merseysider would have "added anything" at Molineux, it was pure spin. He had amassed 12 goals in nine games for United, a sequence full of power, finesse and hitherto untapped aerial ability. Wolves can only have received a psychological fillip on hearing he was not even on the coach for Saturday's game.
Berbatov, who is more effective ghosting into gaps than as a target man, grew into the role, having seen Kevin Doyle demonstrate how it should be done in a robust first-half display. However, until Scholes asserted his midfield nous after the break, with an expertly taken goal to boot, United were a pale imitation of, say, Ferguson's sides of 1994 or '99.
They are far from a one-man team, but without Rooney, and with Nani, Darron Gibson and Michael Carrick ineffective and Nemanja Vidic flustered by Doyle, they looked an unexceptional one. But for a lack of composure in front of goal by Stephen Ward and substitute Sam Vokes, United might now be level on points with Chelsea and Arsenal, at best, rather than two ahead.
McCarthy, asked what he could do to improve the division's worst goals record, sighed and replied candidly: "I don't know. Could we have played better? Could we have created any more chances? Probably not. We're playing as well as we possibly can. The team has been terrific."
It was a similar story in the previous home game, when Chelsea won 2-0, and soon Wolves visit Arsenal. Who did their manager see emerging as champions? "If Petr Cech is fit, it'll be much closer between the three of them. But I'm more concerned about who comes out on top in our battle."
Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-5-1): Hahnemann; Zubar, Craddock, Berra, Ward (Keogh, 84); Foley, Guedioura (Ebanks-Blake, 84), Henry, Jones, Jarvis (Vokes, 88); Doyle. Substitutes not used: Hennessey (gk), Elokobi, Milijas, Mancienne.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Brown (Neville, h-t), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Gibson (Diouf, 62), Scholes, Carrick, Nani (Park, 73); Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Rafael, Fletcher, Obertan.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Booked: Wolverhampton Jones, Craddock; Manchester United Vidic.
Man of the match: Scholes.
Attendance: 28,883.Reuse content