It was heard as late as last Saturday, a cry of “Lucky United”. It’s said that luck evens itself out, but does it? Even when it always seems to favour United? “It’s a quality that’s part of our history” says Sir Alex Ferguson. A whole chapter of the Manchester United story can be devoted to the team’s last minute winners and for the victims it can be soul destroying, just like it was at Eastlands. United have reserved their most callous acts this season for their City neighbours – 90+6, 90+2, 90+3.
The first thing to know is that it’s no fluke. Other teams can wilt when the heat of battle is so near to being intolerable. But this is what distinguishes Ferguson’s team, they do not get flustered and they do not resort to long balls, hoping for a ricochet, when they can trust the passing game that has kept them at the top of English football for so long in the first place.
And, more than any other club, they drag themselves back from the precipice. United take us to the edge. They leave you thinking they have just come up that little bit short. But then they conjure up something that demonstrates, in their DNA, they are different to the rest, and it never fails to enthral. The secret is that United are never beaten. “That’s the nature of the club and it’s not something you can halt” Ferguson has said previously.
This is why, when the Manchester derby was in the final minute of stoppage time, Paul Scholes temporarily forgot himself. The ginger haired veteran is no longer the box to box player of old. He tends to sit back these days, spraying passes around in the manner of an NFL quarterback. But here he was, penetrating the opposition lines, flashing a header home for the 149th goal of a long and distinguished United career.
Scholes is now 10th in the list of United’s all-time scorers, a goal behind Ruud van Nistelrooy, but the most important thing for his club is the way that twisting header, followed by the events at White Hart Lane, changed the dynamics of the title race.
Before this weekend one bookmaker had already paid out on Chelsea. Nobody described it as particularly rash, or dumb, but at the heart of the United family they never stopped believing.
Chelsea’s date at Anfield on May 2nd increasingly looks like United’s best hope of another slip up from Carlo Ancelotti’s men and boy oh boy, the irony that Liverpool could conceivably present their deadliest rivals a 19th league title, wrapped in red and white ribbon and bow.
Some United supporters fear Liverpool, with 18 championships, will roll over for Chelsea if the alternative is that United take their record. But can you really see Liverpool deliberately losing to spite United?
Lest it be forgotten, when a similar situation occurred on the final weekend of the 1994-95 season, Blackburn Rovers were beaten at Anfield. Jack Walker’s club did not win the league because of a favour from Liverpool but because United, in second place, could not win at West Ham.
But it will be of alarm to United that Liverpool’s Europa League semi final against Atletico Madrid may be postponed for a week because of the volcanic ash clogging the skies, meaning the second leg would take place four days after the Chelsea game. Uefa will decide today and, if that is the case, the only logical conclusion is that Rafael Benitez would rest the likes of Steven Gerrard against Chelsea. As it turns out, Fernando Torres was only today ruled out for the rest of the season anyway.
For now, United should think no further than Saturday’s game against Tottenham whose last two results have demonstrated that a home win for Ferguson’s men cannot be regarded as a formality – another last minute winner will be more than welcome.
Are late goals for United just pure luck or part of their mentality?