Read a full match report of the Premier League game between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United at Molineux on Saturday Feb 5 2011.
Just as Mike Tyson discovered at the hands of Buster Douglas, invincibility can be shattered by the most underestimated of opponents, yet Manchester United would not have expected their 29-game unbeaten league run to be ended by the bottom club.
But Kevin Doyle’s first-half header — after George Elokobi had equalised Nani’s third-minute opener — secured the wholly deserved victory for Wolves that ended United’s 10-month unbeaten record and gave renewed hope to those teams pursuing Sir Alex Ferguson’s league leaders.
United were desperate. They were defensively slack and impotent in front of goal. No longer invincible, they must now prove this is a blip rather than their luck running out if they are remain on course for the title.
“It would be great if they gave us five points for this,” Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Mick McCarthy said.
“But they don’t. We still get three. We have played well this season and not had the results we deserved, but the reason why we are where we are is because we have been bobbins against West Ham, Wigan, Bolton and Blackpool.”
United, who rode their luck to win at Blackpool last month, were never going to find it easy against McCarthy’s team.
History should have been a pointer, with league leaders United losing to bottom club Wolves at Molineux in Jan 2004.
Back then, a one-point lead over Arsenal melted away to the extent that Arsène Wenger’s Invincibles finished the season 15 points clear of United.
Wolves may have started the day rooted to the foot of the table, but they have already beaten Chelsea and Manchester City on a Molineux pitch that is bearing the scars of an unforgiving winter.
So the pre-match loss of Rio Ferdinand, who injured his calf in the warm-up, was not the most welcome news for Ferguson, who is now likely to be without the England captain against Manchester City next Saturday.
Still, with Jonny Evans drafted in for Ferdinand, United overcame the late personnel switch to make the perfect start when Nani opened the scoring.
The Portuguese winger has become a crucial figure at Old Trafford this season, finally adding a finishing touch to his obvious talent, and he took advantage of poor Wolves defending to score his ninth goal of the campaign by guiding a left-foot shot past goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey at the near post.
Wolves are nothing if not determined, though, and they sensed uncertainty in United’s back four as they pushed forward down the flanks.
And their 10th-minute equaliser came as a result of naive defending by Rafael da Silva, who switched off as Jamie O’Hara played a short corner to Matt Jarvis.
He floated the return ball into the penalty area for Elokobi to head past Edwin van der Sar from 10 yards. Wolves deserved to draw level and the goal gave them momentum.
Van der Sar had to deny Adam Hammill with his legs before Doyle gave the home side the lead six minutes before half-time.
Nenad Milijas’s inswinging free-kick was the type that gives defenders nightmares and the ball evaded Nemanja Vidic and Evans before being glanced into the net by Doyle’s shoulder.
The half-time entertainment provided by flame-throwers on the pitch was probably similar to the treatment being meted out by Ferguson in the dressing room.
In an attempt to turn the tide, he replaced Michael Carrick with Paul Scholes and ditched 4-3-3 for 4-4-2, but Wolves responded by flooding their defensive third. United could not find a way through. As a result, frustrations grew and Wayne Rooney was booked by referee Michael Oliver for kicking out at Ronald Zubar on 64 minutes.
While Wolves retained the ability to hurt United on the break, with Doyle and O’Hara both troubling the visitors in the second-half, McCarthy’s men were also aware of the need for self-preservation and they began to defend in two banks of five, leaving just Doyle up front.
The introduction of Javier Hernández on 64 minutes made little difference for United and they continued to toil.
Rooney, in another below-par performance, summed up United’s day when he shot over from 15 yards on 77 minutes after Hennessey spilled a routine cross.
As defeat loomed, United began to overstep the mark.
Scholes was booked for trying to divert Ryan Giggs’s cross into the net with his hands, while Giggs was fortunate to escape a booking for tripping Doyle who was attempting to waste time.
Losing does not come easily to Manchester United, but Wolves proved that it is ultimately unavoidable.