Last updated : 18 January 2004 By Editor
Suddenly, Rio Ferdinand is the least of Manchester United's worries. The centre-half departed early here after picking up a minor ankle injury. He is expected to be out for about eight months. In his absence, Wes Brown came on and United fell to pieces. Brown slipped to present Kenny Miller with the winning goal and United finished goalless for the second successive weekend, their single point from the home draw with Newcastle United last week representing a meagre return from what looked like two winnable matches.

Molineux, needless to say, went bonkers at the final whistle. The last few minutes were like a cup tie, with United throwing everything forward and Wolverhampton Wanderers bravely throwing their bodies in the way, but when Wolves had a real cup tie this month it took them two games to get past Kidderminster Harriers. How that form can translate to toppling the champions within a few days is one of the mysteries that make football so compelling.

Dave Jones called it a giant-killing, yet despite the backs-to-the-wall defiance in the closing minutes and the stadium announcer giving the final score three times because he liked the sound of it so much, this was no fluke result.

United have only themselves to blame for not making their overwhelming pressure pay off when the game was goalless. Wolves sat behind a five-man midfield, rarely getting any men forward in support of Steffen Iversen, inviting United to come at them. They did just that, yet with neither Darren Fletcher nor Cristiano Ronaldo capable of delivering a telling ball from the flanks, they had to channel most of their attacking efforts through Paul Scholes, who was well looked after.

At half-time yesterday United seemed the more likely winners, having moved up a gear towards the interval after needing a lot of choke to get started on a misty Midlands morning. But in the home dressing-room, the Wolves manager, Dave Jones, was exhorting his troops to believe in themselves, building on the confidence achieved in a remarkable run of nine home games without defeat since Chelsea strolled to a 5-0 win in September.

Wes Brown, recently recovered from injury, would unwittingly play a decisive part in one of the season's most dramatic moments to date. Twenty-two minutes into the second half, he slipped as Miller latched on to Denis Irwin's forward header and ran at him. The young Scot, ineffectual until that moment, kept his head to beat Howard for his third goal of the week, but first-ever in the Premiership.

Diego Forlan and David Bellion arrived to assist Van Nistelrooy, who appears to be suffering in the nervous nineties as he attempts to become the fastest scorer of 100 goals in the Premier League era. The Dutchman set up Scholes to force a first fine save from Oakes, who produced his second to deny Bellion and, just before the long agonies of added time, a third from Van Nistelrooy's sharp turn and shot.

After the last whistle, the announcer repeated the final score every 30 seconds as he if he could not quite believe it. Ferguson, who took his squad off to Dubai last night for some warm-weather training, probably shared the sentiment. But Northampton Town, United's FA Cup opponents a week today, will be dreaming even more wondrous dreams all week.
It was a victory that confounded the critics, the form book and for once, the bookies, who offered insulting odds of 7-1 against a Wolves win, a record for a home side this season. Only Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to sense a shock lurking in the misty midday air by fielding his strongest possible team, having almost paid for fielding a weakened side against Wolves at Old Trafford.

The mist lifted but United's players remained in a fog for most of the match as they were smothered by the sheer will and energy of a Wolves team who thoroughly deserved to win. Only when the excellent Ferdinand limped off five minutes into the second half, however, did Wolves find a way through.
Wolves raised their game, but United were poor. Sir Alex Ferguson said: "I don't think it was a bad performance," but the statement was a characteristic example of old stoneface protecting his players. United have now failed to score in and dropped five points from their last two matches, and Arsenal can displace them at the top when they play Aston Villa this afternoon.

It will have been a subdued business-class cabin that transported Ferguson and his squad to Dubai last night for their winter sun break. Rio Ferdinand, in particular, will have plenty to ponder. Having reluctantly agreed to start his eight-month suspension, pending appeal, he was injured after 12 minutes in a tangle with Miller and limped off early in the second half. United were unconcerned - he should be fit again come September.

Ferguson was not about to make it public, but one or two of his charges will have had the hairdryer treatment for failing to translate their marked territorial advantage into an acceptable result. Ronaldo was horribly profligate, and Ruud van Nistelrooy was guilty of one of the misses of the season, heading weakly over a gaping net from barely two yards. Apart from the goal they did score, Wolves were desperately close when Paul Ince shivered Tim Howard's right-hand post with the goalkeeper well beaten.

Their manager, Dave Jones, said they rode their luck, but they deserved any good fortune that came their way for the heroic resilience of their defending in all areas. Good teams, they say, defend from the front backwards, and that was the way of it for the men in old gold, with Miller and especially Steffen Iversen chasing everything, lost cause or not.