Wigan Athletic have defined Manchester United's season. Not in Cardiff, where Sir Alex Ferguson's squad placed old priorities aside to chant "champions" as they lifted the Carling Cup, but last night at the JJB Stadium where they found relief in stealing three points from Paul Jewell's side while Chelsea supporters congregated on Las Ramblas and the Champions' League hoardings were being put in place at an expectant Highbury and Anfield.
Ferguson insisted he felt no envy as he watched his greatest English rivals on the playing fields of Europe a fortnight ago but a cold night in Lancashire was not what he would have had in mind when he prepared his February schedule at the start of this campaign. Nor Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was again left on the substitutes bench by the United manager but helped create an undeserved equaliser for Cristiano Ronaldo within two minutes of his second-half arrival and then saw the desperately unfortunate Pascal Chimbonda bundle a clearance over his own goal-line in stoppage time. As in Cardiff, however, United hid their embarrassment superbly, their coaching staff and substitutes celebrating hysterically as Wigan players collapsed to the floor in despair.
With the bitter disappointment of their Carling Cup final defeat only eight days old Wigan required little incentive to vent their emotions on the United defence, though when late arrivals among the visiting support disrupted a minute's silence for Lee Ellis - a former apprentice goalkeeper at the JJB Stadium who was killed while serving in Iraq last week - their thirst for retribution merely increased.
Wigan dominated a fiercely competitive opening and were thoroughly deserving of the standing ovation that greeted their performance at the interval. The quality of their delivery from both flanks and the physical presence of Jason Roberts through the centre posed a range of problems to United, who required the continued impressive form of Wes Brown to remain on level terms.
Gary Teale squandered the first excellent opening of the night when, after Rio Ferdinand had hauled down Roberts but escaped without a booking, Henri Camara played the Scotland international in behind Mikaël Silvestre only for his shot to sail over having taken a slight bobble off the relaid surface.
Roberts then headed into the arms of Edwin van der Sar from only two yards out in the 17th minute and while subsequent first-half chances came from distance, their regularity served to emphasise Wigan's command and United's failure to recapture the devastating efficiency of the Millennium Stadium.
Van Nistelrooy's replacement in the starting line-up, Louis Saha, barely had a touch of note in the first half, with Rooney guilty of over-elaborating in attempting to pass to the French international in the 25th minute when he should have taken the selfish option and shot.
The England international was annoyed only with himself in the 49th minute when he headed an excellent Gary Neville cross wastefully high and, despite producing their finest spell after the re-start, United found themselves behind 10 minutes later. Again the quality of Wigan's crossing proved the visitors' undoing, this time when Jimmy Bullard's corner picked out Arjan De Zeeuw's run into the penalty area and his header forced Ryan Giggs into a goal-line clearance. Though Van der Sar foiled Roberts on the rebound the ball fell to the feet of Paul Scharner who duly converted from three yards.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Filan; Chimbonda, Scharner, De Zeeuw, Baines; Teale, Kavanagh, Bullard, McCulloch (Ziegler, 89); Camara, Roberts. Substitutes not used: Walsh (gk), Jackson, Thompson, Johansson.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre (Evra, 85); Ronaldo, O'Shea, Giggs, Park (Van Nistelrooy, 71); Rooney, Saha. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Vidic, Richardson.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).Reuse content