Evergreen Scholes joins 700 club
Milestones seem a weekly occurrence at Old Trafford but some carry an added significance. Some are not simply a statistical reason for being sentimental. Because, as Rio Ferdinand represented Manchester United for a 400th time, on Sir Alex Ferguson's 500th home league game, as Ryan Giggs headed into uncharted territory by becoming the first man to play 600 Premier League games, one landmark meant more than others.
Not to the man himself - it is not in his nature to be carried away by a mere number. However, to the supporters who gave him a standing ovation, and to the manager who coaxed him out of retirement, Paul Scholes' admission to the 700 club was a special occasion. It was marked in suitable style.
Friday will be the 18th anniversary of his debut, when he delivered a double against Port Vale. Momentous matches tend to bring the same outcome. For one who prefers life outside the limelight, Scholes has a capacity to catapult himself into it. "He has scored in his 100th, 300th, 400th, 500th and 700th games," Ferguson said, "so that is fantastic."
It was also necessary. For 50 minutes, Wigan flourished. For 40, they floundered. The turning point was the latest reminder of Scholes' predatory powers. His 155th United goal seemed simple enough, a tap-in after Ali Al Habsi parried Nani's cross, but it was a product of his positioning. One who rations his runs forward in his autumn years was six yards from the Wigan goal when he struck. "That is what we remember about Paul as a young player, ghosting into the penalty area," Ferguson added.
And then, at a stroke, the accent changed from experience to youth. Three more goals all involved debutants. Alexander Buttner's was a flawed and fortunate performance but the exuberant Dutchman ended with the hat-trick of goal, assist and clean sheet. He was provider first with a shot that Javier Hernandez turned into a pass with a Solskjaer-esque display of opportunism. Then came a solo run illustrating undeniable determination, but involving two moments of luck. First James McCarthy seemed to win the ball back from the Dutchman and then his shot, struck from the byline, was turned into his own net by Al Habsi. "He has a great engine and enthusiasm for the game," Ferguson said. "He is raw and has a lot of rough edges."
An altogether classier goal brought unqualified praise. Nick Powell drilled in a shot from 20 yards to score ten minutes into his United career. "Nick Powell is going to be a really good player," Ferguson said, the 70-year-old celebrating an 18-year-old who was six months old when Scholes debuted.
And yet the feelgood factor was only apparent afterwards, and only then from home camp. Both on and off the field, some with United allegiances acquitted themselves poorly. The supporters were the initial culprits, taunting their Liverpool counterparts.
If the Hillsborough tragedy was not mentioned by name, it was implied with their timing, as they promulgated the incorrect image of Liverpool as the self-pity city, as unedifying as the sentiments. "Always the victim, never your fault" was the chorus from the Stretford End. It was only a minority, but one that nevertheless numbered thousands and who defied Ferguson's call for an end to such chants. A terse, one-line statement followed from the club: "The manager has made the club's position very clear on this matter. It's now up to the fans to respect that."
On the field, one of the Manchester United players saw his reputation diminished. Ferguson complained in April that Giggs' impeccable sense of balance meant the veteran had only won five penalties in two decades. The same cannot be said for some of the younger generation, who can lose their balance unprompted.
Danny Welbeck was a case in point, contriving to fall when going past Al Habsi. "I don't know how you can explain it," Roberto Martinez said, before coming to a succinct conclusion: "He dived. It was a shocking decision, as bad as you are going to see in the Premier League." A modicum of justice was done when Al Habsi saved Hernandez's penalty, but the miscreant escaped unpunished.
He was only given the lesser sanction of a yellow card when he bookended his afternoon with another moment of wrongdoing, Welbeck scything down Franco Di Santo. "It is reckless, it is dangerous and it is a red card," Martinez added, a mild-mannered man angered by the repeated injustices his side have suffered at Old Trafford. "You are looking for a little bit of a fair ground to perform on." Fairness, however, was not always in evidence. Not on the turf and not from sections of the stands.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Paul Scholes. This was vintage Scholes. He hardly misplaced a pass and popped up to score a vital goal.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: As he often does, Ferguson spared some of his regulars a home game against lesser opposition. Patrice Evra was officially injured, Antonio Valencia and Shinji Kagawa unused substitutes and Robin van Persie only appeared for a cameo. Of those who did figure, Welbeck was one of the more effective performers, apart from his moments of villainy, and Hernandez scored on what could prove a rather rare start.
WIGAN VERDICT: The scoreline doesn't show it, but they played well for 50 minutes and Martinez's habitual positivity is not misplaced. But, as the Spaniard said, his side tend to suffer after international breaks when their American and African contingent have long journeys back to Lancashire. Arouna Kone had two excellent opportunities to score but failed, and their ethos is such that they can suffer the occasional thrashing against the elite clubs. "It would have been very easy for us to not have a go and lose 1-0 in a damage-limitation performance but our teams will never play like that," Martinez vowed.