There is no finer reader of a Premiership run-in than Sir Alex Ferguson, so perhaps we should not have been surprised at his prescience yesterday. Man-chester United, he warned in the match programme, could not depend on blitzing opponents every week and, not for the first time, he was right.
They defeated Charlton Athletic, but it was the sort of grinding performance that wins championships rather than the fantasy football that attracts admirers. Faced by a team whose endeavour and spirit belied their position near the foot of the table, United got the three points their title hopes demanded, but you would have got long odds on the scorers, particularly if you had predicted both goals would come from headers.
Park Ji-Sung scored his fourth goal as a United player while Darren Fletcher got his seventh eight minutes from time, and while both have their merits as midfield players, no one would describe them as budding Tommy Taylors. Championships are won frequently by teams who keep their heads; in United's case, those heads were on surprising shoulders.
"It was a difficult game," Ferguson said, applauding Charlton as much as his own players. "It was a surprising performance because teams at the bottom of the table don't always have the confidence to play. They came out and acquitted themselves well.
"One-nil means nothing, you can concede a goal in a moment, so our second was very important. For the first time this season the pitch looked dry and bouncy, and maybe that's why we weren't as fluid as we can be."
The pitch was mitigating circumstance one, but head and shoulders higher were Charlton, who have now lost their past 10 Premiership matches against United but who were anything but cowed yesterday. On paper, top versus second bottom looked a formality; in reality it was a hard game, the theme set by the opening 20 minutes. United began with a flourish, Park and Louis Saha provoking diving saves from Scott Carson within six minutes, but Charlton could have taken the lead twice minutes later. First Dennis Rommedhal found the side-netting after Marcus Bent had sliced through midfield, then Darren Ambrose caused palpitations in the home defence with a header that Tomasz Kuszczak tipped round the post.
United's great virtue this season is that their goals have come from a multitude of sources and, after 24 minutes, they found another: Park's head. The South Korean has a habit of abandoning his judgement when he gets near the goal, so it was a surprise when he reacted quicker than anyone else as Patrice Evra's cross from the left deviated off Madjid Bougherra's attempted tackle and looped in the air. Park, who had moved off his wing, spotted the opportunity and rose above Ben Thatcher to force the ball into the corner.
United played much of the second half in such a subdued manner you could have been forgiven for thinking this was a meaningless end-of-season fixture. Charlton, sensing they might be catching the League leaders dozing, pressed forward.
The visitors came close to getting an equaliser after 77 minutes. Rommedhal's free-kick floated menacing into the box, Marcus Bent and Gary Neville contested the header and the ball bounced just wide. "It must have passed the post by a matter of inches," Ferguson conceded. "They gave us a few worrying moments."
United needed something different and, for the second time in this game, they found it. Henrik Larsson passed to Rooney, whose shot was blocked by Carson. The rebound came back to Rooney and this time he crossed to the far post, where Fletcher headed into the net.
The sound in Old Trafford was that of surprise. Then it was overwhelmed by relief. United now have two games before Chelsea next take the field in the League and could conceivably double their six-point lead before then. Meanwhile Charlton, who have played both the top two in the last nine days, are playing for their Premiership lives, their next two games, against West Ham United and Watford, possibly pivotal.
"Our season starts here," Alan Pardew, the Charlton manager, said. "We can't change what we are, which is a 20-point team, and we have to improve. We have to attack our last 11 games and do what Portsmouth did last season. We saw signs today and I believe we can go on a run and get the 20 points we need."Reuse content