Last updated : 06 May 2007 By Editor


Does it really matter where, when and how the medals are secured? Does it matter that Manchester United's players could be enjoying a siesta on a welcome day off and Sir Alex Ferguson will be patrolling the golf course if weather permits?

All that matters is, the finish line is in sight. United secured the required win in the den of their neighbours and if Chelsea do not win at Arsenal this afternoon, they will be over the line.

Ronaldo, hardly one to keep things simple if there is some showmanship to be had, used the old Robbie Fowler routine. He stepped forward, stopped, then whacked his spot-kick low into the corner. It was his seventeenth Premiership goal of a campaign Ferguson described as 'a fantastic season for the boy'.

There was little evidence that City could respond to peg United back, considering the closest they came to troubling Van der Sar until their 80th-minute penalty was a volley from Emile Mpenza aimed nicely at the goalkeeper's chest. Stuart Pearce tried to inject a fraction more energy when he replaced the creaking Dietmar Hamann with Sun Jihai at the interval. But the second half served up more of the same as United stroked the ball around without exerting too much of what was left of their mental and physical power after arriving home deflated from Milan at 5am on Thursday.

Ten minutes from time, United's title advantage hung in the balance as Ball jinked into the area and crashed into Wes Brown. Styles awarded the second penalty of the match. Thousands of Chelsea fans willed Darius Vassell to do the honours, but the former England striker shot straight down the middle of the goal, enabling Van der Sar to pull off a theatrical save with his legs. And the Dutchman knew it, roaring to the heavens before the ball had even been cleared.

And so the chance for City to end their uneasy run without a goal at home was dashed. They have not scored at the City of Manchester Stadium since New Year's Day. On this evidence they may not until 2008. 'Putting the ball in the back of the net is our Achilles' heel,' lamented Pearce afterwards. 'It is what we have to address going into next season.'


Funny how Cristiano Ronaldo's form has nosedived since he began to be garlanded with the end-of season awards. A bit like Manchester United themselves, he has roared all season then gone quiet just when a flourish would have been appreciated.

Ronaldo was well below his best here, along with team-mates who simply wanted the points with a minimum of fuss after the draining disappointment of Milan in midweek, although he still managed to be influential.

He did not receive any garlands from City, of course; he received Michael Ball's studs gratuitously planted in his stomach after just two minutes. Home fans booed heartily as Ronaldo stayed down near the centre circle, but when Sir Alex Ferguson saw the foul on his touchline monitor he was out of his seat like a startled pheasant, imploring the fourth official to look at the pictures and have a word with the referee.

Naturally, he did no such thing, leaving Ronaldo pointing at his bruises in vain and Ball remaining on the pitch. Ben Thatcher and Joey Barton may be no more, the latter just jettisoned after punching a colleague's lights out on the training pitch, but the otherwise soft...#8209;centred City seem to have a knack of picking up troublesome characters.

Referee Rob Styles must have had an idea that he had let Ball off lightly because for the rest of the first half he showed Paul Scholes a lenience United's frequently erring midfielder did not deserve. There was nothing malicious in any of Scholes's mistimed tackles, but he would not have reached the interval without seeing a yellow card in many other matches.

Ronaldo was booed for the rest of the afternoon by City fans ignorant of the fact their team should have been down to 10 men virtually from the start. As there happened to be a title resting on the result of this game, it was tempting to wonder what the point is of having technology on the touchline if no one is willing to utilise it.


For months, football had been anticipating an unprecedented Premiership title climax framed as a one match shoot-out between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. Instead, on a gentle summer's day more suited to Wimbledon and on a pitch as manicured as centre court, the title race simply petered out. It had all the drama of someone blowing out a candle at bedtime.

Carpe diem? Manchester United had no need to do so, simply pushing against the half open door that is City's defence until it yielded a soft goal. Poor old City, who have not managed a Premiership goal of their own here in a blue moon, a total playing time of 12 hours and 18 minutes since Georgios Samaras's two efforts on New Year's Day, could not even score from the penalty spot, United goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar saving Darius Vassell's poor effort with his left foot.

At least referee Rob Styles' decision to award a spot kick, when Michael Ball dived over Wes Brown's leg, disproved Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho's claim that it is a new rule in football that penalties cannot be awarded against United. Perhaps Mourinho will now have some theory about City players wanting United to win the title.

They have now all but breasted the tape, needing a maximum of one point from their final two games to be certain, thanks to superior goal difference, of being crowned Premiership champions for a ninth time. But the probability is that United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will be opening a bottle of vintage red at teatime today when the final whistle blows at the Emirates Stadium, where Chelsea must beat Arsenal to keep the door ajar.

If yesterday proves to be the day the title was won, how fitting and deserving that the decisive moment should fall to the talented white feet of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Premiership's outstanding performer, who scored his 17th league goal of the season, a record for a midfield player. There was also a sense of natural justice that it was a foul by Ball on Ronaldo that provided the penalty.

Sir Alex Ferguson will head off for a relaxing round of golf today.

Ferguson was famously informed of his first championship success as Red Devils manager in 1993 when a well-wisher charged on to the golf course to tell him of the triumph.

"Hopefully Arsenal will get the result we want but if we have to go to Chelsea to get something on Wednesday, we will look forward to it," said Ferguson.

City manager Stuart Pearce believes the race for the title is now over. "It has been a great title race but I think this result finishes it," Pearce said.


They had to endure a heart-stopping late scare, but Manchester United will be champions with two games to spare if Chelsea fail to beat Arsenal at the Emirates stadium this afternoon. Edwin van der Sar burnished a reputation that has suffered of late by saving Darius Vassell's 80th-minute penalty, but the matchwinner, with his 23rd goal of a coruscating season, was Cristiano Ronaldo, who showed Vassell how to score from the spot.

Arithmetically, the destiny of the title may still be in doubt, but the way in which United and their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, capered on the pitch at the final whistle, running to their fans in exultant celebration, said it all. They are over the final hurdle and clear in the finishing straight.

It was entirely fitting that Ronaldo, the footballer of the year, should score the goal that could take the Premiership trophy back to Old Trafford after four years away - appropriate, too, the way it came. The improvement in Portugal's wizard of the dribble this season has personified United's collective resurgence, and justice was done when, having been ruthlessly kicked by Michael Ball, he tormented his assailant into conceding the penalty which settled this scrappy derby, in which City's approach left much to be desired.

It was not the bloodbath such games can be, but Pearce's mediocre team sought to bridge the gulf in class with a succession of cynical trips, hacks and obstructions, nearly all of which went unpunished by the referee, Rob Styles, who had a dreadful afternoon. Not only did he miss the most blatant of illegalities, he then booked Van der Sar and Ryan Giggs for verbal transgressions, which paled into insignificance by comparison.

It was thought that Ferguson might want fresh legs after the midweek exertions in Milan, but he contented himself with recalling Rio Ferdinand and starting with Alan Smith. City were without Joey Barton, for well-documented reasons. If, as it is said, the serial miscreant's record is the length of his arms, his knuckles must drag on the ground.

In his absence, Ball took on the role of aggressor-in-chief, and was lucky to last two minutes. Latecomers were still taking their seats when the left-back, who is on a short-term contract after leaving PSV Eindhoven, stamped on Ronaldo as he lay flat on his back and helpless. Ferguson, understandably went ballistic at the officials' failure to spot the most obvious and outrageous of fouls. The United manager is not always the most objective of witnesses to such things, but on this occasion his touchline tirade was well justified.

How the referee and his assistant both missed the incident is a mystery, but television didn't, and Ball is certain to be charged by the Football Association on video evidence. Putting the misery of Milan behind them, United were clearly superior from the start, and Nemanja Vidic and Ferdinand headed against the crossbar before the first half had reached its mid-point.

Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes were assertive in midfield, glad no doubt to be free of the adhesive attentions of Gennaro Gattuso. City's anchor-man, Dietmar Hamann, is so slow these days he appears to be playing in reverse, and it was a merciful release when he was substituted at half-time. City did have chances, but their finishing was in keeping with that of a team that has not scored at home since New Year's Day.


At half-time at Wastelands (sorry, Eastlands) a tribute was paid to an elderly gentleman who had been following Manchester City home and away for 70 years. It was his last game, the announcer said, which made him one of the lucky ones.

How the octogenarian fan slipped out of the stadium is unknown, but one suspects he could not have got out of there fast enough. Thanks for the memories, but frankly the current team will leave precious few. The word "tedious" would not do justice to the lack of excitement generated by Stuart Pearce's side.

Which is not the City way. Even in the darkest days they have always entertained. Their defence might be as secure as Tony Blair's hold on the Premiership, but their attack could always be relied upon to set the pulse racing. This is the cock-up club, where princes are accompanied by court jesters, and the team are likely to win or lose 5-4.

Now the prospect of them scoring at home seems the height of fantasy. Yesterday's blank means City have not got a Premiership goal in front of their own fans since New Year's Day, which comes to 738 minutes, or 12hr 18min, of fruitless labour.

Just about the only thing they did get out of the 1-0 defeat was the unwanted tag of being statistically the dullest team ever at home in England's top division. Their 10 goals for a whole campaign failed to reach even the miserable 11 registered by Arsenal in 1912-13 and by Sunderland in 2002-03. City were even awarded a penalty yesterday, but for a successive game at Eastlands they missed it, Darius Vassell shooting straight at Edwin van der Sar. Joey Barton, who said two weeks ago he would not pay to watch City play, may be a reprehensible character but he has a future as a critic.

Knees up, Wesley Brown. A late penalty save by Edwin van der Sar's knee after Brown was harshly ruled to have fouled the villain of the day, Michael Ball, ensured that Manchester United are only one point short of a ninth Premiership title in 15 years and a first since 2003.

A team with an iota more confidence than Manchester City could have helped Chelsea take the contest at least as far as their meeting with United on Wednesday. As it is, Jose Mourinho's side must win at Arsenal this afternoon or concede and settle for attempting to deprive Sir Alex Ferguson of a fourth Double in the FA Cup final.

Were United to add the Cup to the championship, the pain of another failure in Europe would ease considerably. Unhappy at having to play on a Saturday lunchtime after returning from Italy at 5am on Thursday, they looked weary here.

But City, to attempt the understatement of the season, are not Milan. Indeed, there have been times this year when they have appeared to be playing a different sport altogether.

Eastlands these days is not so much a fortress as a house built on sand, and when Darius Vassell, like Joey Barton last week, failed from the penalty spot the home team's season sank without trace, not a single goal scored in front of their achingly loyal supporters since New Year's Day.

Barton, of course, was absent yesterday after assaulting a team-mate in training. Ball added to the roll of dishonour by stamping on Cristiano Ronaldo's stomach in the second minute and would have been sent off had Rob Styles not already turned away; the Football Association can hardly turn a blind eye once they study the videotape. Ronaldo, named footballer of the year on Friday, extracted revenge with a successful penalty after Ball tripped him just as blatantly later in the first half.

Bringing back Alan Smith at centre-forward, United reverted to the formation used in scoring four goals in half an hour at Everton last weekend, but the zest and vim of that performance had evidently been drained from their legs in the San Siro. Rio Ferdinand returned to the injury-prone defence alongside Nemanja Vidic, and the pair found City's lonesome striker Emile Mpenza rather less of a handful than Kaka and Filippo Inzaghi in Milan.

Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick in central midfield were also able to play at their own pace after overcoming the initial frustration of finding 10 sky-blue shirts massed in front of them whenever they had possession. For a long time they resorted to knocking long balls down the middle that Richard Dunne, City's player of the year in a thin field, dealt with competently.