It may not be possible for Manchester United to reclaim the title without a sustained burst of brilliance from Wayne Rooney and on an evening when his team were in desperate need of inspiration, their talisman went missing once again.
PA PhotosWayne Rooney looked off colour against Wolves and still has much to prove this season
Wolves deserve credit aplenty forending United's 29-match unbeaten Premier League runand their triumph was entirely deserved after a high tempo and committed performance, yet the questions hovering over the title credentials of Sir Alex Ferguson's side were cemented on a wild and windy occasion at Molineux.
Rooney was hardly alone in fluffing his lines for United, as Dimitar Berbatov was taken off by his manager after 65 minutes and the equally ineffective Michael Carrick was replaced by Paul Scholes at half time. Yet it was the lacklustre performance of United's No.10 that was most alarming.
Rooney's thrilling two-goal display against Aston Villa on Tuesday was noted as the troubled striker's most impressive effort of the campaign to date and all the talk ahead of this game suggested the striker who set the Premier League alight last season was about to emerge from his extended stint in hibernation.
However, the true greats of the game earn their status by offering up brilliance on a weekly basis and, in truth, it has been a full year since the fading Rooney was indulging his adoring public with such a delicious diet.
The 12 months he has just lived through have left a scar on his reputation on and off the field that is refusing to heal, with the Rooney of old remaining a memory United fans dream about rather than witness on a regular basis right now. With just four league goals to his credit this season, he has only 13 games left of this season to confirm his star has not sunk for good.
After missing a chance to hand United a 2-0 lead in the early exchanges against Wolves, this turned out to be another of those petulant, frustrated Rooney displays that did little to help his side's cause on a night when they struggled to get out of first gear.
It meant United's scalp was added to those of Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool for Wolves this season as goals from George Elokobi and Kevin Doyle secured a victory that was more comfortable than McCarthy and his troops could have dared to imagine. Indeed, the title favourites rarely looked like scoring in the second half as they surrendered their unbeaten record all too willingly.
This evening kick-off had much to live up to after the seven earlier games produced a record-breaking 38 goals and the two sides set about joining the free-scoring party with a quickfire start, as Nani opened the scoring with a fizzing shot after just three minutes.
Wolves refused to allow that setback to knock them out of their stride, though, and their leveller was not long in coming. With Rio Ferdinand absent from the United defence after he picked up an injury in the warm up, their backline was exposed as Elokobi rose unmarked in the box to draw the scores level amid euphoric scenes at Molineux.
This stadium comes to life like few others in the Premier League on occasions like this and with the Wolves fans rising to the challenge once again, their team took a lead into the break as Doyle claimed the final touch on Nenad Milijas's cross five minute before the break.
On a cut-up pitch that was doing little for the visitor's passing game, it was natural to expect a defiant reaction from United in the second half and yet their traditional late burst failed to materialise. Not even five additional minutes of injury time was enough to see Rooney and his jaded team mates test the Wolves back line and a dishevelled-looking Ferguson was forced to concede his side deserved nothing as his dream of going an entire season unbeaten came to an end.
"Wolves worked hard and made life very difficult for us, but too many of our players were off the pace tonight and we never got going," the red-faced Scot admitted. "Losing our unbeaten record is hard to accept, but I can have no complaints because didn't play well enough.
"We knew that Wolves were a handful on set pieces and I have said for some time now that they are in a false position in this league. Mick has them well organised and are tough side to play against, but we are still in a strong position in the league and we have to bounce back from this now. I'm sure we will."
McCarthy would have had every right to gloat at his triumph, yet he offered a typically grounded assessment of his latest giant killing. "It was a great night, but it only counts for three points at the end of it all and we have to take everything we did in this game forward for the rest of the season," stated the former Ireland boss.
"I've never been one to get carried away by a victory against a top team, but it's great for the supporters to have a night like this and hopefully my players get a little bit of confidence from it as well. We know we are a half decent team and thankfully we kept our concentration right to the end on this occasion."
With his shoulders slumped and his body language oozing frustration, Rooney trudged off the pitch at Molinuex knowing the question marks over his personal contribution to United's title charge may soon become more probing.
PA PhotosKevin Doyle won the battle of the strikers at Molineux, netting Wolves' winner
Next on United's agenda is a game against the side Rooney seemed intent on joining not so long ago and after this woeful display, losing to Manchester City next weekend is unthinkable. The moment for Ferguson's leading light to belatedly stand up has certainly arrived.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Kevin Doyle.Wayne Rooney may have been expected to win the battle of the strikers, but it was the Irishman who took the plaudits as his goal and battling all-round display kept Nemanja Vidic busy all afternoon.
UNITED VERDICT:Every sporting giant is entitled to have a bad night at the office and all who swear allegiance to the United cause have to hope this was their blip. They have to get back to their best against Manchester City next weekend.
WOLVES VERDICT:McCarthy's heroes deserve plenty of credit for out-working and halting the United attacking thrusts for long periods of this game as their remarkable record against the top sides in the Premier League continued this season.
ROONEY WATCH:Rooney's only notable contribution to this game was a petulant booking in the second half and his manager must be concerned that his striker is still a long way below his best. Fleeting passages of brilliance from their star man will not be enough for United.
Wow, what a day! If you went to bed early, you missed one of the most exciting conclusions ever to a European transfer window. I was honestly shocked at how many players moved on Monday and at how much money was spent, especially in the English Premier League.
Leading up to the final day of the mid-season transfer window, one of the stories had been how Chelsea had not spent a single dime on players. Even though their aging squad looked burned out and incapable of winning any silverware this season, Blues’ owner Roman Abramovich kept the key to his well-stocked safe well hidden.
Well someone or something must have told him to spend, spend, spend! By the end of play on Monday he had dished out an incredible $114 million on Spain Fernando Torres and David Luiz of Brazil.
Let’s start by analyzing the purchase of Torres. Even though he has endured a very tough season, his numbers at Liverpool are still phenomenal. Overall, he scored 81 in 142 games for the Reds. Explaining why Chelsea signed him is easy, especially if you consider the fact he scored 7 times in 7 games against the Blues.
It is also easy to explain why "El Nino" wanted to leave Anfield. After enduring several years at Atletico Madrid playing second fiddle to Real and Barcelona, the last thing he wanted to do was to spend a decade at Liverpool without winning a single trophy. And let’s face it, the Reds are in transition, and it will be a while before they can compete for major honors.
What about the money? Well $80 million is a LOT of money, the most ever spent by an English club in fact. Would I have paid that much? Never. At this moment in time I believe Torres should have been valued at about 60% of that amount.
Then again, if former Newcastle striker Andy Carroll is worth $44 million, then Torres was a bargain! I can’t believe how inflated the transfer market is when it comes to English players. Is the 22 year-old goal-getter good? Yes. Does he have potential? Yes. But is he worth that kind of money? No way.
Carroll has had a good first season in the Premier League with 10 goals in 19 games and he scored for fun in the second division last year, but he could never be worth more than $25 million. Liverpool obviously felt that they needed to buy someone who could become a new English idol for the fans and decided to splash the cash on a player who could fit that mold. Then again, he could also become a huge bust.
So what were the best and worse moves of the mid-season transfer market? Here is my verdict:
Emmanuel Adebayor – I have never been a big fan of the big front man, but to get a proven goal-scorer for virtually nothing midway through a season has to be a major coup. If his main issue has always been work rate and team spirit, then Mourinho will put him in his place. I expect him to be a big hit at the Bernabeu.
Antonio Cassano – Is he unstable? Yes, and his biography proved it. However, he is still one of the most talented players of his generation and could be the X-factor Milan needs as they look for their first Scudetto since 2004. If he behaves, he will be a hero at the San Siro.
David Luiz – How can $34 million be a good deal? Well, David Luiz is the most talented young defender on the planet. Trust me. I have watched him for over three seasons at Benfica and he has improved every year. Already a regular with Brazil and will quickly become an icon at Stamford Bridge.
Steven Pienaar – $4.8 million for a good international midfielder isn’t a bad deal, don’t get me wrong. However, I think Spurs made a big mistake in messing with their team chemistry. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s what they say, and Harry Redknapp will not win many games, especially against big teams, with Pienaar, Modric and Van der Vaart on the pitch. If anything, Tottenham needed a new defender. Not another creative player. The South African was a waste of money as far as I’m concerned.
Luiz Gustavo – A good player, no doubt, but never worth $23 million. Hasn’t played a single game for Brazil even though they don’t have that many quality defensive midfielders. I think Bayern gambled a little too much on a player who was good at Hoffenheim but will struggle to make the step up at the Allianz Arena.
Julio Baptista – The much-traveled Brazilian went back to Spain and signed for Malaga. The price tag, $3.4 million, doesn’t bother me. However, what does bother me is that Baptista is not the player a team battling against relegation needs. His work rate is poor and so is his commitment. Will score the odd goal but still a liability, both on and off the pitch.
Manchester United 3 Aston Villa 1: Wayne Rooney double sinks plucky Villans
At the end of a transfer window that saw three of their rivals spend a total of £135million on strikers, Manchester United were finally reintroduced to one of their own last night as they consolidated their
position at the top of the Barclays Premier League.
While Fernando Torres and Edin Dzeko settle in at Chelsea and Manchester City respectively, and Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez grow accustomed to life at Liverpool, Wayne Rooney returned to his true form at Old Trafford. It could not have been more timely.
Roo's the man: Rooney bagged two from open play to secure all three points for United
Without a home goal from open play since March, Rooney has struggled dreadfully. The fact that his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, last night challenged him in his programme notes to score a rather modest 10 goals this season said everything.
But Rooney was always going to rediscover his form at some stage and his two first-half goals set United up for a victory that stretched their unbeaten league run to 29 games. That equals a club record but it will interest Ferguson rather less than the fact Rooney has finally played himself into form.
There were a handful of admirable contributions from United players last night. The Portugal winger Nani continues to impress and was terrific. He could have scored a hat-trick.
Ryan Giggs, meanwhile, continues to offer a passable impression of himself circa 1999.
Rooney took the game away from Villa in the first half, however, with contrasting goals in the first and last minutes.
It was a superb demonstration of the finisher’s art as he ran on to a long punt from goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar to touch the ball past Villa defender Richard Dunne and smash it over Brad Friedel’s right shoulder.
Master blaster: Rooney's stunning strike opens the scoring inside a minute
Dunne would have been asking himself questions as Rooney celebrated and Van der Sar was embraced by Patrice Evra. Nevertheless, it was an imperious strike from the United forward.
The early goal gave United impetus and Friedel saved superbly from Nani after another Dunne error in the 22nd minute and then, in rather more routine fashion, from Giggs — after the Welshman had sold James Collins a sublime dummy.
Friedel, becoming the oldest player to represent Villa, had a very good night.
He was to make brilliant saves again in the second half, twice from Nani. But the popular American was powerless to prevent United’s second goal as Rooney arrived at the far post to ram in a superb low cross from Nani.
Villan of the piece: Bent popped up with his second in three games for Villa to no avail
‘We had a great start and what a hit it was from Wayne,’ said Ferguson. ‘He was fantastic all night. It (lack of goals) is bound to have got to him but he has the appetite. He never stops trying. It’s inbred.’ Despite the state of play at
half-time, Villa emerged after the break to trouble United a little. Indeed, Gerard Houllier’s team had endeavoured to play on the front foot all night and it made for an open and engaging game.
The team from the Midlands could have won a penalty when Darren Bent tangled with Evra just after the interval. And Villa were soon very much back in the game when the impressive Stewart Downing broke down the right to lay a goal on a plate for Villa’s new centre forward.
Houllier had a very good record against Ferguson when he managed Liverpool in the early part of the last decade. Briefly he must have wondered if his current team were about to present him with another result to remember at Old Trafford.
Marked man: Ferguson's side maintained their unbeaten run
United have a habit of snuffing out hope very quickly these days, though, and in the 64th minute Rooney laid a cross back to defender Nemanja Vidic, of all players, and the United captain spanked a right-foot shot past Friedel in a manner more befitting a forward.
Villa’s Ashley Young was to hit the bar but Villa’s race was run.
Houllier said: ‘We have been beaten by a brilliant team. If they play like that they will be hard to stop. I am proud of the way my team played.’