United title hopes turn to despair
Sunderland 0 Manchester Utd 1
At the final whistle it was not all over. Not by 30 seconds. As referee Howard Webb ended this compellingly edgy, nerve-shredded contest, Manchester United were, improbably, champions.
By the time the players tentatively regrouped around the away dugout, they were not. Defender Phil Jones' face had shone with naive delight, then stunned disbelief as the cruel reality dawned. His older team-mates stood heads bowed, Alex Ferguson's face was drawn, bursting with a defiant emotion, Wayne Rooney shook hands with his colleagues while the Sunderland supporters gleefully did the 'Poznan' as news of Sergio Aguero's goal filtered through.
It was simply incredible, a maelstrom of emotion that even managed to engulf mid-table Sunderland. They fully played their part and were not just bystanders.
Like the detritus of plastic bags and balloons that were strewn across this pitch, United will feel they threw it away in the last few weeks. Ferguson had promised the party to end all parties, but this turned into a stunned wake. Eight points ahead to now losing the Premier League title on goal difference.
Even though Jones, suffused with the callowness of youth perhaps, had celebrated, other United players -- the peerless Ryan Giggs, the equally redoubtable Paul Scholes had remained in whispered conversation waiting for that title confirmation. Or something a lot worse.
In truth, they did not look like they really believed Manchester City would not prevail. After all, Giggs, a veteran of the 1999 Champions League triumph, knows all about turning it around in injury-time, winning it in what has become known, of course, as 'Fergie time'.
Time and again as the minutes ticked by yesterday, Rooney had tried to run down the clock, taking the ball into the corner while the 2,300 visiting United fans did not know whether to sing or pray or simply wait for what was happening in Manchester to come through to them. In the end, mostly, they seemed paralysed into silence, gripped with their own collective fear that whatever happened here it would probably still not be enough.
For City, this was the most delicious way to win the title -- now that they have won it -- but for United this was the cruellest. It was the astonishing hope that hurt them the most.
It will be that hope that will be the hardest of all their emotions to overcome as they watch the trophy being transferred across the city. City have been the finest team this campaign, they deserve the honours but how, despite their stumbles and problems, United have hounded them down from the season's kick-off in August to the final thud of a ball in mid-May.
It has been some pursuit for Ferguson and his players and they richly deserve to be praised for that and for the way they went about securing the points against a Sunderland side whipped up into a passionate defence by their manager Martin O'Neill.
At times it seemed that it was the home side who desperately needed that win and no one could doubt their commitment as they flew into challenges, pushed back their opponents and preyed on United's occasional doubts and their inability to take the host of chances that they created. But Ferguson will feel this season was all about missed opportunities and to lose on goal difference will make it all the harder to take.
On numerous occasions it has appeared that Rooney has carried this team and it was appropriate that the only goal came from the striker, his 34th of the season for United as he stooped to reach Antonio Valencia's cross and head into the net. That came early into the game and received an appropriately muted celebration.
Still United racked up the chances with Valencia a constant threat and Ashley Young teeing up openings for Giggs, which was pushed out by the excellent Simon Mignolet, and Rooney who completely missed the ball just five yards from goal.
Before that and Rooney's free-kick had clipped the crossbar and then Valencia shot straight at Mignolet.
If United were wasteful, then Sunderland spurned a clear opportunity when Stephane Sessegnon lifted the ball into Fraizer Campbell's path and through on goal he volleyed wide.
Into the second half and Mignolet saved from Rooney, when the striker was put clear by Young, and performed a superb double-save by first beating out Scholes's low drive and then tipping over Giggs's follow-up.
Would United rue their misses? Certainly as the game advanced they started to look unsure with Sunderland pushing forward, sensing they could gain something, only for a couple of half-chances not to be taken.
Rooney went close with another free-kick but as the United players reacted to the crowd they concentrated on holding on to what they already had.
They achieved that, but it was not enough. Sunderland manager O'Neill said it was an "unbelievable ending to the campaign."
It was all that, and so much more. (© Daily Telegraph, London)