Sunday, May 11, 2008

EPL: Manchester United v. Wigan: Live Blog

It's for all the marbles this time, as the final wave of EPL matches kick off across England and fans around the world set up camp on their couches, chairs and bar stools. By the end of the day, all will be decided, including the title race, the quest for European spots and the battle to avoid relegation. I'll be keeping track of the United - Wigan match mostly, but will fill in updates from the other important matches as they come. Feel free to leave thoughts or updates from other games in the comments. Here we go!

0:00: The Score is having feed issues on their UK end, so we're treated to more commentary from James Sharman (insightful) and Brian Budd (not so much). At least Budd's supporting United today: however, that somewhat speaks to his ridiculous nature, as he's usually a Liverpool fan, and Scousers and Mancunians tend to mix like sodium and water. I'd never support the Scouse, unless they were playing a team I hate more or a victory for them would aid United in turn.

5:00: Budd actually just made a good point about how important communication is among the back four and the goalkeeper. From my soccer experience, good communication helps more than any number of skills, but you rarely hear it mentioned on broadcasts.

10:00: Funnily enough, they just cut to the Chelsea game for a second and it illustrated the communication aspect perfectly: John Terry didn't talk with his own keeper, Petr Cech, and wound up getting hit in the head and knocked out of the match as a result. That's a big loss for Chelsea.

18:00: Still no sign of a video feed, but the match is still 0-0. I've got the lineups from the match tracker. Here they are:

Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Park; Tevez, Rooney.
Bench: Silvestre, Saha, Hargreaves, Giggs, Kuszczak.

Kirkland; Boyce, Bramble, Scharner, Figueroa; Valencia, Palacios, Brown, Koumas; Bent, Heskey.
Bench: Skoko, Sibierski, Taylor, Pollitt, King.

22:00: Rooney's obviously a surprise inclusion here, as he was only supposed to crack the bench at best. Choosing Ji-Sung Park over Ryan Giggs is also a bit of an unexpected move, although he has been in good form lately. United have a lot of potential impact on that bench.

29:00: This is ridiculous: almost half an hour in and still no sign of the feed. I don't blame The Score, as the problem's apparently on the English end, and they just buy the feed. Sharman's understandably apologetic as well. United are producing some good chances, according to the match tracker, and Kirkland just made a great stop off a Ronaldo blast.

33:00: Still no video feed: what a time for this to happen! At least my own supplies are holding out: I'm double-fisting black coffee and Dark Scottish Ale (in honour of gaffer Sir Alex Ferguson) at the moment, as well as eating homemade breakfast burritos, which helps to alleviate the pain.

35:00: Bloody hell! We just got video and it's 1-0 United, with the first image we saw that of Ronaldo celebrating. According to the match tracker, Boyce brought down Rooney in the box and Ronaldo converted the ensuing penalty brilliantly for his 41st goal of the year in all competitions. Fantastic, but I would have loved to see it. At least the feed's working now...

37:00: And the ever-dangerous Marcus Bent just slotted a 12-yard volley into the United side netting. That was close. United have to work on their aerial defence.

38:00: Hellfire and brimstone, the feed's gone and died again. A quick switch to the Chelsea match (Setanta) reveals that it's still 0-0.

42:00: We have our feed back, just in time for a United corner. The ball falls to Rooney, but he fails to accomplish much with it due to the maze of players in the way.

43:00: Updates from the relegation race and the Chelsea match: Derby 0, Reading 1; Birmingham 1, Blackburn 0; Portsmouth 0, Fulham 0; Chelsea 0, Bolton 0.

44:00: Thus, at the moment, Fulham and Birmingham would both go down to the Championship, while Reading and Bolton would survive. See my post from last night for the various possible scenarios.'

46:00: And here we are at halftime. Apparently, there's some controversy, not over the penalty awarded by referee Steve Bennett, but over the lack of an earlier penalty off a supposed handball by Rio Ferdinand. Hard to comment without seeing it.

Halftime: A quick update on the European qualification situation. There's only one UEFA Cup spot available through the league, as the Carling Cup winner (Tottenham Hotspur) and FA Cup finalists (Portsmouth and Cardiff City) haven't automatically qualified. Thus, only the team that finishes fifth will grab a spot. At the moment, that's Everton, with 62 points. If they get anything today from their home match against Newcastle United at Goodison Park, they'll lock up the spot: they're currently up 1-0. The other contenders are Aston Villa, three points back on 59 but with equal goal differential (+20) heading in. They're currently tied 1-1 away against West Ham United. If they win and Everton lose, they'll take the spot on goal differential. The scores of the other matches remain the same as at my last update. Also, Wigan surprisingly outshot United 8-5 in the first half.

Halftime: They just showed another video of John Terry's injury, and it looks bad. Sharman and Budd speculated that it might be a broken arm or a separated shoulder, either of which could keep him out of May 21's Champions League final against United in Moscow.

46:00: And here we go again! No changes for the second half by either side. The weather seems to be getting worse: the announcers talked about lightning during the break, and rain's pouring down on the pitch. The match is slightly delayed, as it's supposed to begin at the same second as Chelsea-Bolton down in London: thus, the announcers are joking about synchronized swimming.

46:00: And they kick off. This pitch really isn't looking good, and as the Score guys pointed out at the break, that probably will help Wigan: it's difficult to play technical football on a soaking-wet pitch.

47:00: Park goes down just outside the area, setting up a free kick for Ronaldo. He brilliantly curves it over the wall, but it's punched clear by Kirkland. Carrick can't do much with the ensuing corner.

53:00: Scholes is taken down viciously in the box by Bramble, who doesn't get any part of the ball, but no penalty is called despite United's appeals. A good corner from Park, but Ronaldo heads just wide. That's at least his third great chance of the day.

56:00: Rooney makes a great inside-outside move on his defender and gets a powerful shot away, but Kirkland makes a tremendous fingertip save. United don't do much with the ensuing corner, but they do earn another one.

57:00: Another wasted corner from United.

57:00: The announcers just made a great point: United aren't too likely to sit on this lead, as many other sides would do. That's wise in my mind: too many late goals have doomed 1-0 leads.

58:00: Rooney gets in behind the defenders and appeals for a handball, but the call goes against him.

59:00: Park does a great job to set up Tevez, but he's denied by Kirkland, who is singlehandedly keeping Wigan in it so far. Wigan are sitting back and hoping for a counterattack chance.

63:00: Out-of-town Scoreboard: Andriy Shevchenko, the almost-useless Ukrainian striker, has scored a vital goal for Chelsea to give them a 1-0 lead at the Bridge. At the moment, United will triumph on goal difference, but anything can still happen. Reading have second and third goals at Derby, which will help their battle to stay afloat. Blackburn have drawn level with Birmingham, making it more unlikely that the Blues will stay up, and Newcastle have tied their match with Everton, but Everton will still claim the last UEFA Cup spot at the moment. Villa are now up 2-1 against West Ham, but that game won't matter unless Newcastle beat Everton.

69:00: United substitutions: Hargreaves on, Scholes off, and Giggs on, Park off. With that, Giggs ties Sir Bobby Charlton's club record of 758 appearances in a United shirt, which he'll likely break in Moscow. A truly impressive record for a deserving man, and one of the best wingers to ever play the game. It speaks to his quality that he was able to put up so many starts in an era where United have enjoyed both great success and great depth.

72:00: A clever free kick sees Rooney played in behind the defence, but Wigan are aware and clear for a corner. Wigan head the first corner out for another one, but Vidic makes a great run on the second attempt, fights off Heskey and heads just wide. United have had a tremendous amount of chances, but haven't been able to put them away.

75:00: A quarter of an hour to go, but it will feel like eternity for United fans. In other scores, Birmingham have pulled ahead 2-1 and Fulham are up 1-0 at Portsmouth. This scoreline would see Reading and Birmingham both go down despite their victories. Everton and Chelsea both still lead. Also, in a result sure to bring a smile to the face of United fans everywhere, Middlesbrough are demolishing Manchester City 5-0 at the Riverside.

77:00: Oh, that was a vicious challenge for the ball by Valencia, who nailed Vidic in the back in an attempt to claim an aerial ball. He gets a yellow card for his trouble. Vidic is obviously somewhat fragile at the moment, but he seems to be all right. Ferguson is furious.

80:00: Ten minutes to go. United are defending valiantly, but Wigan seem to have much of the momentum now. I'd like to see a more aggressive United here: a one-goal lead is never enough for comfort.

80:00: RYAN GIGGS! As I wrote that last post, he snuck through the middle, took a pass, and drilled it by Kirkland. On a day where he ties one of the most sacred club records, he's proved that he still has what it takes to be a productive member of one of the world's top sides. The man is absolutely clutch: you can add that to his list of key goals, topped by the marvelous 1999 FA Cup winner in extra time against Arsenal and the 90th minute equalizer against Juventus in that same year. Atrocious defending by Wigan: they left Giggs completely unmarked between their central defenders, and he made the absolute most of the opportunity.

85:00: This should be enough to see United win the title. The air seems to have gone out of Wigan, and United are controlling the play and the possession. Despite Soccernet's prediction, it looks as if the Red Devils will retain their trophy.

87:00: A dangerous Wigan corner, headed back by a United player but cleared off the line by Ryan Giggs. He's proving to be valuable at both ends.

88:00: Wigan are again going for it, but Sibierski's header is punched clear by Van der Sar.

90:00: Out-of-town scoreboard: Reading 4, Derby 0; Chelsea 1, Bolton 0; Fulham 1, Portsmouth 0; Everton 3, Newcastle 1; West Ham United 2, Aston Villa 2; Middlesbrough 8, Man City 1.

90:00: 3 minutes of added time. A Heskey header is saved on the line by Van der Sar.

90:00: And the final whistle! As the announcer called it, "It has been one of the great finishes in the Barclay's Premier League." A fantastic victory for United, and symbolic goals from both the old and new generation of wingers. Wigan put in a valiant effort, and their heart cannot be questioned, but United were the better side. In the end, Chelsea gave up a late equalizer at the Bridge to Bolton, so the title wasn't decided on goal differential at all. The Blues put up a great fight down the stretch after everyone had counted them out, but in the end, the most consistently dominant team won. That's the Red Devils' tenth Premier League title (amazing, considering that the league only formed in 1992) and 17th English top-tier title overall, one short of Liverpool's record.

All the games are wrapped up now, and it's a perfect day for United supporters: not only has their side retained their title, but City went down to a miserable 8-1 defeat at Middlesbrough. Fulham hung on for an away win at Portsmouth, so Reading and Birmingham are each relegated despite 4-0 and 4-1 wins respectively. Everton also won, so they claim the final UEFA Cup spot. That's it for this post: thanks for reading!

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