Michael Carrick struck a 77th-minute winning goal for Manchester United as they maintained their 100 per cent record in their UEFA Champions League group with a 2-1 victory over German champions Wolfsburg at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
But it was a far from convincing victory for the group leaders and required a deflected Ryan Giggs free-kick to cancel out an opening goal from Wolfsburg's Edin Dzeko. Finally, substitute Dimitar Berbatov linked with Giggs in a skilful move inside the area and the veteran winger played the ball into the path of Carrick for a well-placed shot into the top corner from 15 yards.
United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, chasing his third triumph in the event after successes in 1999 and 2008, paid tribute to his side, and Giggs in particular, after the Welsh winger scored his 150th goal for the club. "I thought it was just a matter of time before we did score," Ferguson said. "They never give in - they always keep on playing."
Giggs, however, was dismissive of his landmark goal. "Obviously, I was proud to do it, but it was more important we won the game," said the 35-year-old, who added: "We showed great character to come back".
The contest had started with United in uncharacteristically poor defensive form, given their proud record of not having lost a home game in the Champions League since February 2005, a 21-match unbeaten streak.
Wolfsburg looked well capable of challenging that record as United's back four defended appallingly. Nemanja Vidic set the tone with an aimless header which fell directly to Wolfsburg's Brazilian Grafite whose pass found Christian Gentner only for the forward to shoot straight at Tomasz Kuszczak in the United goal.
Patrice Evra was guilty of an equally glaring error, a pass which travelled straight to the feet of Dzeko, whose 25-yarder shot past the left-hand stick. The mood on the United bench could not have been helped on the 20-minute mark when Michael Owen, who had been talking up his hopes of regaining his place in the England FIFA World Cup™ squad on the very morning of the game, limped off with the recurrence of a groin injury which had prevented him from training on Tuesday.
Fabio Capello, the England manager, sat in the directors' box and it is safe to assume that Owen's hopes of being named in the squad for next week's qualifiers went along with his further participation in this game.
Ironically, the departure of Owen and the introduction of Berbatov seemed to breathe new life into United's previously stagnant attacking play. After 25 minutes, Berbatov neatly back-heeled for Antonio Valencia and the winger sprinted into the area before rolling his shot wide, a poor finish.
Berbatov then did exceptionally well to feed Carrick on the half hour with a clever pass through a crowded area but the England midfielder, with only Diego Benaglio to beat in the Wolfsburg goal, struck his attempt directly at the prone keeper. Giggs also found Berbatov with a far-post centre which the Bulgarian, at an awkward angle, could only volley over.
But, as Vidic capped a terrible first half with a caution for hauling down Grafite on the halfway line, there were further danger signs from the visitors with Christian Gentner heading powerfully over from Josue's corner.
After the restart, Dzeko volleyed over from another corner and Gentner almost succeeded in lifting a shot over Tomasz Kuszczak before Anderson squandered a couple of half-chances at the other end. There was little surprise, therefore, when Wolfsburg took the lead in the 55th minute with Dzeko rising magnificently to head home Makoto Hasebe's short-range cross after another enterprising attacking move from the German side.
The one thing Wolfsburg needed to avoid was presenting United with an easy route back into the contest but, unfortunately for them, Josue's foul on Anderson on the edge of their area just four minutes later did precisely that. Giggs strode up to take the set-piece and his effort appeared destined to offer little trouble to Wolfsburg until it struck the back of Gentner, in the wall, and deflected past the wrong-footed Benaglio in the visiting goal.