Mixing business with pleasure

This triumphant Manchester United squad is durable and its ambition, too, will not falter in the times to come, writes Kevin McCarra.

Championships are Manchester United's trade. They understand the business in every detail and knew how to tease a win out of an exacting match at Wigan. As most people had guessed, Sir Alex Ferguson had not so much been losing a lead in recent weeks as employing it. When defeat had ultimately to be borne at Stamford Bridge, there were proceeds in the rest certain players enjoyed there before the return leg of the Champions League semifinal with Barcelona.

Not even an impresario, though, could have plotted the drama and sentimental appeal of the decisive moment at the JJB Stadium. Nerves were twanging because Wigan, without insisting on too many saves from Edwin van der Sar, had some slight prospect of a comeback and United had to presume that Chelsea were going to win. Steve Bruce's men were killed off by a footballer who, with 10 Premier League medals now, has such seniority that he could almost be seen as a partner in Ferguson's enterprise instead of a mere employee.

Ten minutes from the end Wayne Rooney slid the ball through a gaping central defence and the substitute Ryan Giggs steadied himself before slipping a finish beyond Chris Kirkland. The 34-year-old had also equalled Bobby Charlton's club record of 758 appearances. Hard-headed calculations mean that the spotlight will not fall too often on Giggs in the times to come and, indeed, it was Park Ji-sung who was once again favoured for a key match.

There is both romance and restlessness to United under Ferguson. More, perhaps, than any other leading manager he is dedicated to the concept of perpetual revolution. He drew on the know-how of a few seasoned figures at the JJB Stadium but the process of transition is gathering pace. In a reflection of the globalisation of sport home-grown players are less common now.

One of them should have been escorted away in undignified circumstances. Paul Scholes, already booked for an ugly challenge on Wilson Palacios, ought to have had another caution for the foul that stopped the Honduran from haring free on the right nine minutes before half-time. The clemency from the referee, Steve Bennett, had no justification. Indeed, it punished Wigan by denying them a numerical advantage in their efforts to claw back from a 1-0 deficit.

The Wigan manager, Steve Bruce, was incensed, too, that a penalty had not been forthcoming early in the match when Rio Ferdinand moved his arm into the path of a Jason Koumas drive. No one at least can quibble over the integrity of a team who, within their limitations, did all that they could to test United to the limits.

Ferguson's line-up could probably not have been fluent here. The notorious pitch had been relaid but nothing runs smoothly when a squad with so many games in their bones start to weary. Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance, may have bagged his 31st ? goal of the Premier League season but his form is waning nonetheless.

His generous efforts to advise the referee as to when he should be awarded a foul were not appreciated by either Bennett or the United backroom staff. The visitors had brought cares with them to the JJB stadium. Indeed, there was scant option but to treat the occasion as a fitness test for footballers who had no further occasions to demonstrate their readiness for the Champions League final against Chelsea.

Nemanja Vidic, back after being concussed at Stamford Bridge, was a straightforward case and showed the usual stringency against Wigan. There may have been greater trepidation about Rooney on his return from a hip injury in the defeat to Chelsea. He could not establish here that he was in perfect condition but his value was indisputable. Apart from setting up Giggs, he insisted on the best of Kirkland's collection of impressive stops.

Rooney, at 22, is young for so established a performer and Ferguson, much as he acknowledges the faithful servants, is galvanised by the realisation that there is a batch of individuals on the staff for whom the best is yet to come. He glowed with pride that there had been 26 players whom he had felt bound to take to Wigan in recognition of their status. The United manager extolled the fearlessness of Anderson, yet the Brazilian did not even make the cut to get on to the bench.

While this is a United that excites, it is also attuned to conservative thinking. The lead came when Emmerson Boyce lunged at Rooney, so inviting Ronaldo to resume normal business by slotting away a penalty for the first time since missing against Barcelona in Camp Nou. The match with Wigan was merely in its 33rd minute but United would have been entirely prepared simply to guard that lead.

Many of this line-up's predecessors, in more uproarious times, would have been constitutionally incapable of living by clean sheets. Nowadays the calibre of Ferguson's defence and a tactical approach that gets bodies behind the ball swiftly mean United commonly look resolved to hold what they have. If further goals should be scored, so much the better.

As it was, United did buzz around the Wigan penalty area after the interval but Kirkland relished the attention to pull off save after save before Giggs, at last, left him helpless. Wigan never gave up the fight. It was a matter of honour but that earnestness did not make them incisive. The crowd's loudest gasp was heard when an Emile Heskey header from a Koumas free-kick went over the bar. From a Wigan perspective there were too few close calls in the visitors' goalmouth. United are champions not simply because of zest or good intentions but also because they have been hardier than Chelsea over the long examination of the Premier League fixture list. This triumphant squad is durable and its ambition, too, will not falter in the times to come.


Birmingham 4 (Murphy 31, Jerome 73 & 89, Muamba 90) bt Blackburn 1 (Pedersen 49). Half-time: 1-0. Birmingham is relegated.

Chelsea 1 (Shevchenko 62) drew with Bolton 1 (Taylor 90). Half-time: 0-0; Derby 0 lost to Reading 4 (Harper 15, Kitson 61, Doyle 69, Lita 90). Half-time: 0-1. Reading is relegated.

Everton 3 (Yakubu 28 & pen-82, & Lescott 70) bt Newcastle 1 (Owen pen-47). Half-time: 1-0; Middlesbrough 8 (Downing pen-16 & 58, Alves 37, 60 & 90, Johnson 70, Rochemback 80, Aliadiere 85) bt Manchester City 1 (Elano 87). Half-time: 2-0.

Portsmouth 0 lost to Fulham 1 (Murphy 76). Half-time: 0-0; Sunderland 0 lost to Arsenal 1 (Walcott 24). Half-time: 0-1; Tottenham 0 lost to Liverpool 2 (Voronin 69 & Torres 74). Half-time: 0-0.

West Ham 2 (Solano 8, Ashton 88) drew with Aston Villa 2 (Young 14, Barry 58). Half-time: 1-1; Wigan 0 lost to Manchester United 2 (Ronaldo pen-33, Giggs 80). Half-time: 0-1. Manchester United is champion.

May 5:

Newcastle 0 lost to Chelsea 2 (Ballack 61, Malouda 82). Half-time: 0-0.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008