4 February ~ The midweek fixtures saw to it that tomorrow’s tea-time kick-off between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester Utd is a top-versus-bottom encounter. The match is an opportunity for this Manchester Utd vintage to edge one step closer towards being named “the invincibles”. United are now just 14 games away from becoming only the third team in history to be crowned the unbeaten champions of English football. And yet, this is a match that is every bit as important to their opponents.
Wolves find themselves deep in the relegation quagmire and nobody will be expecting much from the home side against the league leaders. Indeed, if you believe the accepted wisdom that it is results against the teams around you that seal your fate, this could be considered a free roll of the dice for Wolves. In truth, it’s all a bit late for that kind of talk. Wolves have already seen Wigan do the double over them and could manage only a solitary point from two encounters with fellow strugglers West Ham.
Fortunately for Mick McCarthy’s side, it’s not all doom and gloom. The reason they are not yet cut adrift is thanks to the unexpected victories that have been picked up along the way. Molineux triumphs over Manchester City and Chelsea, together with a deserved win at Anfield, certainly give the bottom side hope that they can compete against more illustrious opponents.
Although those victories were well earned, one suspects they also betrayed the frailties of the opposition. This Manchester Utd side appears to be a quite different animal. The constant pruning of the squad seems to have little impact on the success of the Big Red Machine – the loss of a Ronaldo or a Tevez merely paving the way for a Nani or a Berbatov to up their game. The feeling persists that Sir Alex Ferguson’s steely determination gives rise to an inner conviction about the team. This was seldom more apparent than in the recent overhauling of a two-goal deficit at Blackpool – a turnaround that was unnerving in its inevitability.
For Wolves to walk off the Molineux turf on Saturday evening with all three points would require the form book to be mutilated beyond recognition, let alone thrown out of a window. Of course, they have been here before. In their first season in the Premier League, Wolves were bottom of the league when Manchester Utd came calling in January 2004. The score? 1-0 to Wolves. McCarthy dare not even dream it. Adam Bate