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Within three days, a full circle was completed. The match-winner in the 96th minute on Sunday departed after 69 tonight. Scorer had become provider, euphoria was replaced by relief, the most meaningful game of United's season followed by one in a competition they almost won as an afterthought last year. It was an anti-climax for Michael Owen, but then virtually everything else would have been. Having decided the Manchester derby, he nonetheless helped determine the first game of Manchester United's defence of the Carling Cup by assisting Danny Welbeck for the winner. It ensured his second start for United ended rather more happily than his full debut, the defeat at Burnley, with an evening of frustration ended by a well-placed pass.

His past is starting to go unmentioned at Old Trafford, even though his most notable Carling Cup goal came against United in the 2003 final. Poacher then, he is now creator after Darron Gibson fed the ball into Welbeck's pass. The England Under-21 international then played a one-two with Owen, receiving the deft return pass to finish comfortably.

"It was a great, great pass," said Sir Alex Ferguson. "The angle he gave for Danny made it easy for him but the goal told you about the boy's quality, a magnificent one-two, a great return and a marvellous finish."

A year to the day after his United debut, that made it a happy anniversary for Welbeck. Nani had struck the post with a deflected cross two minutes before he scored; two minutes afterwards, Owen was withdrawn, given the company on the bench that he had lacked in attack. He had spent the majority of his time alone up front after United were reduced to 10 men by Fabio da Silva's dismissal.

Indeed he was so isolated that, like a predecessor in the United attack, Ruud van Nistelrooy, he had been offside for a considerable portion of the match, gambling - unsuccessfully on this occasion - on springing a trap. Instead he enabled Welbeck to do just that.

"The game has been decided by one great bit of quality," said Mick McCarthy. "I think Manchester United need that squad because they will compete in every competition. Other teams won't be competing in four competitions; we won't, anyway."

Yet the Carling Cup can feel like a kind of twilight zone where past and future can meet without many of those who represent the present. It can produce a competition within a competition: guess the starting line-ups. That, in turn, can generate as much intrigue as some of the games. Ferguson made a mere 11 changes, which amounted to a reward for some and a rebuke to others. United possess a greater calibre of stand-in than most but with Old Trafford one-third empty, a real rarity, the lack of excitement was obvious.

There was, albeit briefly, an alliance of different generations in attack in Owen and Federico Macheda. The Italian's first half-hour of last season brought a goal of consequence and quality, defeating Aston Villa. His first 30 minutes of the current campaign pre-empted his withdrawal, through no fault of his own, to accommodate another defender in Ritchie de Laet.

It came after Wes Brown, having initially won the ball against the awkward Austrian Stefan Maierhofer, lost the flight of it and the advancing Michael Kightly took possession. The winger's acceleration might have taken him away from Fabio, but the full-back stumbled, reaching out for a rugby-style ankle tap of a tackle. Down went Kightly and, as he was headed for goal, off went Fabio.

"The referee showed the red card immediately, he never thought about it; maybe if he'd waited a few seconds..." lamented Ferguson, before conceding: "I suppose by the letter of the law, he probably had to go." Nevertheless, his side improved after being depleted. Even with a one-man advantage, Wolves only had three noteworthy chances. On his return to Old Trafford, David Jones had two opportunities, a free kick that Tomasz Kuszczak saved well and a miscued shot, following a similarly sliced clearance by Gary Neville, that sailed over the bar. Later the substitute Kevin Doyle was inches away with an audacious volley.

But where Wolves' costliest forward was off target, the combination of two United forwards, one 18 and the other nearing his 30th birthday, sufficed.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Darron Gibson - The Ireland international's enthusiastic shooting has long been a feature of his game. He augmented it with an energetic display, helping United's 10 overcome Wolves' 11.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Ferguson's team selection hinted at his choice of players for Saturday's trip to Stoke. That bodes badly for Michael Carrick: with none of Anderson, Darren Fletcher or Paul Scholes even on the bench, it indicates his position in the pecking order. Rio Ferdinand's place on the bench was probably a punishment for erring in the derby.

WOLVES VERDICT: McCarthy's reunion with Sunderland on Sunday is obviously the priority. Having Michael Kightly available again is a huge bonus for Wolves but, given the one-paced nature of his centre-backs, it was perhaps a surprise that the former Marseille defender Ronald Zubar was not tried.

KING FOR A DAY: Joshua King was awarded a squad number earlier on Wednesday. Later the same day, the Norwegian striker made his debut, the 56th United player to make his bow in this competition. Quick and direct, he almost capped his debut with a goal and looks a prospect.


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