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May 6, 2012

Red Devils dare to dream

Not since Denis Law struck for Manchester City as Manchester United were relegated at Old Trafford in 1974 has a backheeled goal appeared so unappreciated by the scorer. As Paul Scholes, born later that momentous year, flicked United into the lead with masterly expertise, there was barely a flicker of a celebration. No raised arm, no smile, no indication of joy.

Not for the first time, a glance at Scholes offered an accurate appraisal of United. There was an air of resignation about the old timer, a sense that a scoring a goal, no matter how skilful, when the Premier League trophy seems headed for the Etihad Stadium was the footballing equivalent of winning a minor battle and losing a major war.

But both goalscorers' reaction told a tale in themselves. Scholes was the face of realism, Ashley Young the voice of implausible optimism. When the winger doubled United's advantage against Swansea, he charged into the visitors' net, retrieving the ball and haring back to the half-way line. It was as though, even with 49 minutes remaining, he reasoned that saving a few seconds could salvage their title bid.

This was hope, improbable hope, at once understandable and unrealistic. The extra time produced no dividend, however, United proving profligate as chances to chip away at City's superior goal difference were spurned. Roberto Mancini's men are eight better off; unless United can defeat Sunderland by nine or more goals, therefore, they need QPR to avoid defeat at the Etihad Stadium.

"You have to think there's hope," Ferguson said before citing, as he often does, the 1956 Grand National, and hoping City will stumble at the final hurdle. "There could be a Devon Loch. You never know. Stranger things have happened in this game of football."

Yet Devon Loch lingers so long in his memory precisely because it was a one-off. As he needed to be, Ferguson was more bullish to the Old Trafford crowd than the post-match interviewers. "Hopefully next week it will be the biggest celebration of our lives," he had said, in a brief end-of-season address. But he did not accompany his players on the lap of honour. United may end their campaign with 89 points, but that is not enough to merit a jubilant trot around the pitch.

It is about context, and the context is that United's hopes rest with a striker Ferguson sold, a manager he scorned and a relegation-threatened team. Mark Hughes' QPR are City's remaining opponents. "I just wish Sparky was playing," Ferguson joked.

Even in a year of valiant veterans, depending upon a 48-year-old forward might be stretching credibility a little. As it was, a 37-year-old midfielder broke the deadlock, Scholes ghosting in behind Mark Gower as Antonio Valencia sped past Neil Taylor. The winger set up Michael Carrick, whose sidefooted shot was deftly redirected by his central midfield partner.

Then, when Angel Rangel had slid in to block Wayne Rooney's shot, Young guided the rebound into the far corner of the net. What happened next was noted by Brendan Rodgers. "He sprints into the goal to get the ball," the Swansea manager said. "That tells me he thinks they can get a load of goals."

And, while he praised his side for keeping the second half scoreless, they could have done. The list of United's potential scorers included both full-backs, Patrice Evra and Phil Jones; one centre-back, Chris Smalling; plus substitute Tom Cleverley; as well as more regular suspects. All had opportunities, none went in.

United could have run up a rugby score but profligacy brought symmetry. They, like City did at Newcastle, won 2-0. A 20th title looks like eluding United, just as Rooney missed out on a landmark of his own. A 34th goal of the season would have equalled his personal best; instead, on the day he collected a belated first caution of the league campaign, he scooped a shot wide when Valencia and Carrick had combined beautifully.

Open and attacking, positive and progressive, this was more recognisably a United side than the cautious collective beaten at City on Monday. But that was a side selected in the fear that they could not go toe to toe with their moneyed rivals. As it is, they still sit side by side on 86 points but proximity looks very painful for United.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Ashley Young - Sharp and lively, he was involved in many of United's finest moves and took his goal expertly. This was Young's first start since the Villa game three weeks ago; perhaps the winger's theatrics then persuaded Ferguson to remove him from the limelight but Young showed that, when he stays on his feet, he has plenty of tricks in his armoury.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Valencia was excellent, begging the question of why the division's form right winger did not start against City, while Scholes and Carrick impressed in midfield. However, Javier Hernandez proved particularly wasteful in attack and the chances Swansea enjoyed, often involving Gylfi Sigurdsson, showed that United struggled to pick up the Icelander.

SWANSEA VERDICT: Last week's ill-advised flirtation with what Rodgers had termed a "3-diamond-3" formation was not repeated. Swansea reverted to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 and were all the better for it. While they could have conceded more goals, they were also close to netting themselves, with David de Gea producing a fine stop to deny Danny Graham. They passed the ball with typical confidence and a wonderful debut season in the Premier League could yet end with a top-half finish. There was also time for sentiment when Alan Tate, the former United youth player and a stalwart of Swansea's time in the lower leagues, was given a late cameo.

Follow Richard Jolly on Twitter @RichJolly

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