United 4 Stoke 0: Mathieson's verdict
A venue that has seen so many end-of-season champagne moments ended with a low-key brief lap of honour amid protests rather than pyrotechnics. Sir Alex Ferguson has delivered numerous last-day victory speeches while the Premier League trophy was being polished and brought out and the bubbly corks prised open. He probably hadn't prepared a winning speech on this occasion. If he'd needed to produce one out of the blue there had been plenty he could have cribbed from. He's not had to issue a Churchillian message since 2006. However, he roused the United support with a defiant verbal memo that the Reds would bring the title back next year. But the record 19th title will disappointingly have to wait for another day. United did as much as they could on a day when even the modern-day footballing miracle workers had their backs against the wall as this roller-coaster league season came down to the wire. But everybody knew that asking for a miracle in this crazy season of improbable results was always asking too much. They were selling 2010 title-winners T-shirts outside Stamford Bridge and the whole atmosphere was a party one. Outside Old Trafford there was an air of rebellion as anti-Glazer protestors set off smoke-bombs and dished out placards. Inside the stadium, the crowd did their best to drum up early support amid hope that in typical United fashion, the Reds could eke out an impossible celebration. The charade sadly lasted just seven minutes before news reached Old Trafford that Chelsea were a goal up against Wigan. But United don't do capitulation. While their was pride at stake, and maybe, just maybe, some disaster might befall Carlo Ancelotti's side, the Reds kept their heads up. The reward was a 30th minute goal from Darren Fletcher. Ryan Giggs' corner was powered forward by Nemanja Vidic and a brief game of pinball ensued before the ball landed at Fletcher's feet on the post and he rammed in the opener. Cruelly, it was as if Chelsea had sensed possible danger and less than two minutes later they were 2-0 up at the Bridge and Wigan were down to ten men. Just short of the wire the title race was over. Chelsea were breaking the winning tape and there wasn't another drop of drama to be squeezed out of the league season. It was time to reflect on all the what-ifs. Even the opening 45 minutes provided a few of those. What if for instance Nani had produced his 2010 personal form in the autumn and the first part of winter? The Portuguese winger sent over two inviting crosses that provided more what-if moments. What if Dimitar Berbatov had converted a few more chances this season? It has been a campaign of frustration for the Bulgarian as his detractors gathered. He headed one Nani set-up over from a good position and then skimmed the crossbar with a better effort later. Fletcher's goal was another if only occasion. If only the Scot could have married his marvellous powerful contribution in midfield with a few more goals. This was his first Premier League effort since November. It had all promised so much when he scored a double against City at Old Trafford in September. Giggs sidefooted in United's second from a Berbatov cross. It was the midfield's 27th goal contribution of the campaign as back up to Wayne Rooney. It won't have gone unnoticed that that was only one more than Frank Lampard's individual league haul. The ironies cut even deeper when United went 3-0 up and it was one-time Old Trafford product Danny Higginbotham who desperately steered a ball into his own-goal as he tried to cut out Rooney's low 54th minute cross. It was the 12th own goal assistance United had had all season and to rub salt in the wounds that was the same amount in Berbatov's credit column. While everyone was digesting that the inevitable landslide in London was taking place and Chelsea answered United's third with two further goals. United's strongest defensive pick comfortably repelled one of the top division's supposed most awkward sides and it also left you wondering if only Ferdinand and Vidic had been around together in those dark pre-Christmas days against Aston Villa and at Fulham when the Carrington medical room was more packed than an election polling booth. Berbatov's tormented season ended when he was substituted just after the hour. The speculation is it might even have been the £30.75m club record buys last appearance but it was hard to judge just what Old Trafford thought of the striker whether it was sympathy or apathy because he left the pitch with Paul Scholes. The veteran is here for another 12 months, Berbatov must have been hoping he had the same cast-iron guarantee about his future. Meanwhile, the agony piled up at Stamford Bridge and Park's diving header only his third of the season again added to the feeling that if more had come from the likes of him then the burden on Rooney would not have been so great. Rooney's late season agony, that has seen his effectiveness slip away because of injuries, became worse when not only was he subbed because of another injury but his quest for the Premier League golden boot was in left tatters as Didier Drogba hit a hat-trick.
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