|photo by stopherjones||via PhotoRee|
Wigan begin by far the brighter of the two sides, and if one didn't know better the men in blue would appear to be the team taking control of the League, with the ones in red buried deep in a relegation dogfight. Finding ample room down the left hand side of the pitch, Wigan's Jean Beausejour, Shaun Maloney, Victor Moses, and James McCarthy pile pressure on the visitors, raining early corners and shots down on United 'keeper David De Gea.
It's almost the 20 minute mark before United carve out their first real opportunity of the evening, Carrick to Giggs, before the Welshman's shot is deflected out of bounds to snuff out the threat. Moses continues to cause problems for the Reds' defense, escaping the clutches of both Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans on multiple occasions, and despite occupying the same pitch as Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez, easily appears the most dangerous striker on either side.
Rooney is pulled back by Sir Alex to a deeper lying position, to counter the home side's significant edge in possession -- a common problem for United when Paul Scholes isn't in the lineup. Wigan's fans go wild after half an hour, as Victor Moses outjumps Patrice Evra to head the ball and ruffle the back of the net, but the Assistant Referee is quick to signal a blocking foul on Gary Caldwell that negates the home side's presumptive advantage.
United's normally vibrant wing play is strangely muted on the evening, as both Ashley Young and Ex-Latic Antonio Valencia barely feature, primarily due to United's inability to string more than two passes together at a time. The Reds finally begin to impose themselves on the visitors as the game nears the interval, and a question leads us into the second half: which was the greater aberration -- the first forty minutes or the last five?
Tom Cleverley replaces an ineffective Young in an attempt to inject some additional energy into the moribund team from down the M-62, requiring the visiting side's shift to a three man midfield and shunting Rooney out wide to the left. No matter, the move fails to alter the game's dynamic, and when Maloney artfully bends a ball past an outstretched De Gea, no one can deny the home side a deserved lead, and the goal injects a little bit of evening drama into the title race.
The unexpected scoreline prompts the United Manager to call on home grown talent Danny Welbeck to replace Chicharito before the hour mark is reached, as the Champions seek to answer the questions being posed by a resurgent Wigan Athletic. Evans narrowly escapes a second yellow for a lax challenge as United continue to unravel on their mid-week journey, and Sir Alex's last roll of the dice is to substitute Nani for Rooney -- a move likely intended to shock his sleepy troops into action.
With twenty minutes to spare United crank up the pressure, as Nani's introduction begins to not-so-subtly shift the balance of play into the home team's end. Corners begin to pile upon corners, and the final quarter hour will prove a true test of both the Champions' resolve, as well as the home side's mettle.
The latter appears to prevail as the Reds struggle to break Wigan down, forced into shooting from further out than they'd prefer as sand begins to leave the hour glass on United's eight point League lead. De Gea is forced into action as Wigan look the side more likely to score, although Welbeck's glance across goal at the other end requires a fine Ali Al-Habsi save to preserve the Latics' one goal advantage.
Sir Alex leads his charges from the touchline, a spot he assumes only when he's particularly unhappy with their performance. As the whistle blows, the papers are likely already being printed bearing witness to Wigan's historic victory -- their first in 15 League attempts versus United -- and predicting the Reds imminent demise. But was the night a brief road bump on the way to Title number 20, or does it signal the beginning of the end....? The question hangs uncomfortably in the air until Sunday, when Aston Villa come calling at Old Trafford.
This is farlieonfootie for April 12.