Scholes' dismissal sad end to glorious career
For a moment time seemed to freeze. There were 18 minutes left of a tense, anxious, endlessly absorbing FA Cup semi-final when the ball bounced out of the control of Manchester United's Paul Scholes, towards City's Pablo Zabaleta. As it hung in the air between the two players, a collective intake of breath came from those in the stadium favouring United. It was, in truth, a fearful pause. They knew what was coming next.
There was no doubt Scholes would contest for the ball -- he has never shirked a challenge in 17 years. Zabaleta, too, is not a player shy of commitment.
But while the Argentine connected with the ball, 72 minutes of trying to drag his side towards their second Treble had slowed Scholes's 36 year-old fibres. His challenge was late, high and -- as has so often been the case with the Ginger Prince -- laced with waspish intent.
He stabbed at his target, missing it horribly, instead smacking into Zabaleta's thigh, branding it with four prominent stud marks. Mike Dean stood purposefully to one side while Scholes patted his opponent's head as he lay poleaxed on the turf. And then, after pausing for dramatic effect, the referee flourished the red card.
There was no complaint from Scholes. He walked towards the tunnel, eyes lowered, pulling the red shirt from out of the waistband of his shorts, aware that with him had gone his side's chances of recovery in this tie. A goal down against a side schooled in Italian ways to hold on to a lead, they were struggling with 11 men, never mind 10.
What a sad way to go, what an inappropriate end to one of the great careers of the modern game. Because that was, in all likelihood, the last time we will see him on a grand footballing occasion. Perhaps, barring a sentimental, ceremonial run-out in United's final home fixture of the season, the last time we will see him in a red shirt. And like Zinedine Zidane, whose glittering time concluded in similar ignominy, it was not the way he should have gone, walking on his own to the dressing room, head bowed in a mix of shame and regret, with the kit man's consoling arm around his shoulder.
That is not to say he did not deserve to be sent off. Nobody could argue that this, his last and final demonstration of his inability to tackle cleanly, did not warrant dismissal. His challenge was as ugly as it was dangerous. But there is only one way a career like his should have been book-ended: in glory. He should have been serenaded, the chants of the red faithful ringing in his ears, not the hoots of blue derision.
And concluded it almost certainly has. The player was known to be equivocal about signing a contract extension to play on next season. He knew that, unlike his contemporary Ryan Giggs, his powers have been visibly on the wane. After this we can be sure that a man renowned for his self-critique will have made up his mind. The evidence was all there at Wembley that time has called for the finest English player of his generation.
For the first 20 minutes of this semi-final, Scholes was magnificent. His passes zipped across the turf; he pointed, he urged, he demanded the ball; he ran the game from his position just in front of United's centre backs.
To watch him in that form was to see a demonstration of what made experts drool about his abilities for so long. The vision, the precision, the way he knew what he was going to do with the ball long before he received it: he delivered a brief masterclass for any aspirant midfielder.
The trouble was, those around him were not able to exploit his period of ascendancy. Particularly, Dimitar Berbatov. The Bulgarian has been identified by United followers as the man who has twice lost the club FA Cup semi-finals, in 2009 with a missed penalty against Everton, and this weekend when he failed to convert the kind of chances the suspended Wayne Rooney or substitute Javier Hernandez would have taken.
The first of his opportunities was expertly crafted by Scholes, passing his way through the congested edge of the City penalty area to send Berbatov clear. But Joe Hart was the United forward's equal and progress was stalled.
Something more was required to crank up United's challenge.
And this is the problem Scholes now has. He admits he is not a player who enjoys 20-minute cameos, but latterly that is all he has been able to deliver.
As he faded from this game, so did United. As Yaya Toure and Nigel de Jong took the initiative for City, he could not retrieve it. The more he tried, the less he had to give. His anxiety at his failure to engineer recovery finally manifested itself in that woeful challenge.
So he went, bringing to sudden fruition the moment United followers have dreaded for so long. Now they have to face up to life without Paul Scholes.
And it's not going to be anything like as enjoyable as life with him. (© Daily Telegraph, London)