Rooney returns to hibernation
It may not be possible for Manchester United to reclaim the title without a sustained burst of brilliance from Wayne Rooney and on an evening when his team were in desperate need of inspiration, their talisman went missing once again.
Wolves deserve credit aplenty for ending United's 29-match unbeaten Premier League run and their triumph was entirely deserved after a high tempo and committed performance, yet the questions hovering over the title credentials of Sir Alex Ferguson's side were cemented on a wild and windy occasion at Molineux.
Rooney was hardly alone in fluffing his lines for United, as Dimitar Berbatov was taken off by his manager after 65 minutes and the equally ineffective Michael Carrick was replaced by Paul Scholes at half time. Yet it was the lacklustre performance of United's No.10 that was most alarming.
Rooney's thrilling two-goal display against Aston Villa on Tuesday was noted as the troubled striker's most impressive effort of the campaign to date and all the talk ahead of this game suggested the striker who set the Premier League alight last season was about to emerge from his extended stint in hibernation.
However, the true greats of the game earn their status by offering up brilliance on a weekly basis and, in truth, it has been a full year since the fading Rooney was indulging his adoring public with such a delicious diet.
The 12 months he has just lived through have left a scar on his reputation on and off the field that is refusing to heal, with the Rooney of old remaining a memory United fans dream about rather than witness on a regular basis right now. With just four league goals to his credit this season, he has only 13 games left of this season to confirm his star has not sunk for good.
After missing a chance to hand United a 2-0 lead in the early exchanges against Wolves, this turned out to be another of those petulant, frustrated Rooney displays that did little to help his side's cause on a night when they struggled to get out of first gear.
It meant United's scalp was added to those of Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool for Wolves this season as goals from George Elokobi and Kevin Doyle secured a victory that was more comfortable than McCarthy and his troops could have dared to imagine. Indeed, the title favourites rarely looked like scoring in the second half as they surrendered their unbeaten record all too willingly.
This evening kick-off had much to live up to after the seven earlier games produced a record-breaking 38 goals and the two sides set about joining the free-scoring party with a quickfire start, as Nani opened the scoring with a fizzing shot after just three minutes.
Wolves refused to allow that setback to knock them out of their stride, though, and their leveller was not long in coming. With Rio Ferdinand absent from the United defence after he picked up an injury in the warm up, their backline was exposed as Elokobi rose unmarked in the box to draw the scores level amid euphoric scenes at Molineux.
This stadium comes to life like few others in the Premier League on occasions like this and with the Wolves fans rising to the challenge once again, their team took a lead into the break as Doyle claimed the final touch on Nenad Milijas's cross five minute before the break.
On a cut-up pitch that was doing little for the visitor's passing game, it was natural to expect a defiant reaction from United in the second half and yet their traditional late burst failed to materialise. Not even five additional minutes of injury time was enough to see Rooney and his jaded team mates test the Wolves back line and a dishevelled-looking Ferguson was forced to concede his side deserved nothing as his dream of going an entire season unbeaten came to an end.
"Wolves worked hard and made life very difficult for us, but too many of our players were off the pace tonight and we never got going," the red-faced Scot admitted. "Losing our unbeaten record is hard to accept, but I can have no complaints because didn't play well enough.
"We knew that Wolves were a handful on set pieces and I have said for some time now that they are in a false position in this league. Mick has them well organised and are tough side to play against, but we are still in a strong position in the league and we have to bounce back from this now. I'm sure we will."
McCarthy would have had every right to gloat at his triumph, yet he offered a typically grounded assessment of his latest giant killing. "It was a great night, but it only counts for three points at the end of it all and we have to take everything we did in this game forward for the rest of the season," stated the former Ireland boss.
"I've never been one to get carried away by a victory against a top team, but it's great for the supporters to have a night like this and hopefully my players get a little bit of confidence from it as well. We know we are a half decent team and thankfully we kept our concentration right to the end on this occasion."
With his shoulders slumped and his body language oozing frustration, Rooney trudged off the pitch at Molinuex knowing the question marks over his personal contribution to United's title charge may soon become more probing.
Next on United's agenda is a game against the side Rooney seemed intent on joining not so long ago and after this woeful display, losing to Manchester City next weekend is unthinkable. The moment for Ferguson's leading light to belatedly stand up has certainly arrived.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Kevin Doyle. Wayne Rooney may have been expected to win the battle of the strikers, but it was the Irishman who took the plaudits as his goal and battling all-round display kept Nemanja Vidic busy all afternoon.
UNITED VERDICT: Every sporting giant is entitled to have a bad night at the office and all who swear allegiance to the United cause have to hope this was their blip. They have to get back to their best against Manchester City next weekend.
WOLVES VERDICT: McCarthy's heroes deserve plenty of credit for out-working and halting the United attacking thrusts for long periods of this game as their remarkable record against the top sides in the Premier League continued this season.
ROONEY WATCH: Rooney's only notable contribution to this game was a petulant booking in the second half and his manager must be concerned that his striker is still a long way below his best. Fleeting passages of brilliance from their star man will not be enough for United.