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United reclaim the Comeback Kings' crown

Long before Liverpool emerged as the principal claimants to Manchester United's Premier League crown, they seemed to have taken one of the unofficial titles that resided at Old Trafford. When autumn recoveries occurred almost on a weekly basis at Anfield, Liverpool were the comeback kings. Now, once again, that tag belongs to United. It is the principal reason why a solitary point is now required to complete a hat-trick of titles.

Trailing 2-1 to Aston Villa, losing 2-0 to Tottenham, pegged back at Sunderland and facing defeat at Wigan, United have won them all. Where there could have been one point, there are 12 instead. Lacking the character and quality to respond to setbacks, they would languish far behind Liverpool.

Courtesy of a series of successful substitutions and their prowess at salvaging victories in trademark fashion, United's mantle as the division's specialists at rescue jobs is safe. So, too, is their grasp on the trophy.

A seventh successive win may have suggested an inevitable procession to the crown. Actually Wigan provided a sizeable obstacle on the road, but United overcame it, and them.

While they only contributed one of the goals, 'the Fab Four' - a much-used phrase in the early weeks of the campaign, but comparatively unemployed since then - were in unison for 27 minutes. In that time, United went from disappointed to delirious by unleashing their four most fearsome attackers, Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo.

It had echoes of the stirring second half against Spurs. Then, as now, Tevez was the substitute. Then, as now, he galvanised United. On Wednesday night, however, his contribution was garnished with a goal, three minutes after he completed the quartet on the pitch.

When Michael Carrick shot, the Argentine applied a back-heel to change the direction. It was ungainly but undoubtedly intentional, wrong-footing Richard Kingson and bringing him a second goal in four days. His parting gift to his employers may come in the form of silverware.

Or not, given something of a volte face from Sir Alex Ferguson. ''He's a fantastic little player,'' said the United manager. ''He knows I want him to stay. We hope we get where we want. It's never changed. I had a chat with him and David Gill had a chat with him.''

The difficulty, Fergie insisted, is Kia Joorabchian and the MSI consortium. ''We're not negotiating a football club, that's the problem.'' It may be a bargaining move to try and reduce the asking price, though given the evident interest from elsewhere it can only succeed if Tevez tells his owners he won't countenance a move to any other club.

His introduction meant United switched from 4-3-3 to a distinctly old-fashioned 4-2-4, forcing the Wigan defence to defend deeper and affording the visitors' midfield greater space. It was exploited beautifully with four minutes remaining. When John O'Shea cut the ball back from the right, Carrick finished imperiously, striking the ball into the back of Kingson's net.

''We were the best team second half,'' added Ferguson. United had their opportunities in both halves. Rooney was culpable for two glaring misses and, in his manager's estimation, ''Cristiano could have had a hat-trick''.

Ronaldo's radar was unusually faulty, but Tevez's introduction gave United a fourth forward option, a sense of risk and a shot of adrenalin. Often at their most compelling when they are most intent upon attacking, United overloaded with creative players and sacrificed the safe option in order to gamble.

It paid off as Wigan, despite defending bravely, could not hold out. Out of form, out of danger and out of contention for Europe, they were the very definition of a team with nothing to play for and no chance of prospering. Yet they performed with a zest to accompany their natural pace, a hunger that was allied with their physical strength and a spirit that belied their mediocre form of the last couple of months.

''They've shown everyone about the honesty and the integrity of the Premier League,'' said Steve Bruce. ''We've done everything we possibly could to get a result.''

Indeed, they troubled United from the off. Antonio Valencia, a man whose future may lie at Old Trafford, endeared himself to his potential employers if scarcely impressing them by skewing a shot wide after 90 seconds (the explosive acceleration that preceded it helped explain his appeal).

Then came a lead that few had forecast before the match. Hugo Rodallega and Nemanja Vidic both leapt for Lee Cattermole's chip forward, the striker succeeding in heading it up in the air. Initially confused as to the ball's whereabouts, the Colombian recovered swiftly to drill a shot past Edwin van der Sar at his near post.

Then Rodallega appeared to have dislodged Federico Macheda as the most improbable figure to turn the title race. But while Liverpool have been encouraged by goalflashes in several of United's recent games, the ultimate outcome has served to reinforce United's position and their reputation.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Carrick
With a goal and an assist, it is hard to overlook him. Carrick had waited three years to score away from Old Trafford for United, but the significance of his first strike on the road earns him this vote.

WIGAN VERDICT: Six games without a win, their season is ending with a slump, but Wigan put in a tremendous performance. Rodallega's powerful display as the lone forward boded well for last season and Bruce's athletic, organised team looked like the force they were earlier in the season. However, their awful record against the best was extended: it is now eight defeats out of eight against United and four points from 96 against the Big Four.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: They should clinch the title against Arsenal now and that, in turn, should permit Ferguson to field his reserves against Hull, three days before the Champions League final. Rio Ferdinand's recovery from a calf problem appears pivotal for the meeting with Barcelona; despite Jonny Evans' evident promise, Rodallega gave him some awkward moments.


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