By Greg Stobart at Old Trafford
An hour after the full-time whistle had been blown, a bottle of man-of-the-match champagne still sat in the tunnel at Old Trafford. Paul Scholes, the intended recipient, was long gone, back to his simple life in the countryside east of Manchester having declined to do any post-match interviews.
It was typical Scholes after a classic performance from the little maestro as Manchester United beat QPR 2-0 on Sunday to step a huge leap towards a 20th title that now seems inevitable.
Forget the controversy for a minute and just marvel in a performance of vision and distribution that few in Europe could match, let alone in the Premier League. The 37-year-old was at his very best as United won an eighth game in a row, scoring the decisive goal with a trademark rasping strike into the bottom corner from 25 yards.
Sir Alex Ferguson usually identifies one of two crucial turning points in a season. How about January 8, 2012? That was the day that United announced Scholes’ decision to come out of retirement and they have never looked back.
Many, including this correspondent, questioned the move. Scholes had spoken following his retirement of his frustration at no longer being able to dominate matches at the highest level - but United were struggling so much under the effects of a midfield injury crisis that he felt he still had something to offer.
|OLD KING SCHOLES
|LEAGUE RECORD PRIOR TO SCHOLES' RETURN
|LEAGUE RECORD AFTER SCHOLES' RETURN|
Yet Scholes has exceeded all expectations, playing a crucial role in United’s title charge, with Ferguson’s side dropping just two points since his comeback, taking 34 points from 36 available. United have won all nine games that Scholes has started this season and have brought about an 11-point swing against Manchester City since he reversed his decision to retire.
By the day, Patrick Vieira’s claims that Scholes’ comeback was an act of desperation look more foolish. You do not play mind games with Ferguson, and you do not make Scholes your target.
From being five points behind their noisy neighbours last month, United now have an eight point lead at the top of the table with six games to play, another title triumph looking all but certain.
Much of the focus on Sunday’s win will be on the farcical errors by the officials in the 14th minute as United took the lead via Wayne Rooney’s penalty. After the assistant failed to spot that Ashley Young was offside, referee Lee Mason pointed to the spot as the United winger threw himself to the ground under the most minimal contact from Shaun Derry. To make matters worse, the QPR captain was sent-off.
But Scholes was a joy to watch throughout, imperious as he demanded the ball and dictated play, switching delightful passes out to Antonio Valencia with the flick of the foot, teasing the weary QPR midfielders with his control of the possession.
One wonders just where United would be without him given the situation he stepped into, answering a genuine SOS from Ferguson with the likes of Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Tom Cleverley all sidelined at the time.
Central midfield has been a problem position for United for a while, something Ferguson will look to address in the summer, but Scholes’ class and experience has allowed them to paper over cracks and charge towards the title in the second half of the season.
Scholes is understood to be very tempted to play for another year, and United chief executive David Gill should waste no time in drawing up the contract.
|HE SCORES GOALS
||Paul Scholes is 11/1 to score the first goal when Manchester United take on Wigan with bet365
Six months ago, Scholes was coaching the reserves and realising he still had something to offer, now he is probably the most in-form English footballer in the country.
With Jack Wilshere struggling with injury and still yet to play this season, Scholes should be under genuine consideration for a place on the plane to Euro 2012 with the England squad.
After all, he has unfinished business with the national team, having admitted he regrets his decision to turn down an attempt from Fabio Capello to to persuade him to return to the England fold for the World Cup in 2010.
The kind of player who hardly ever loses possession and can control the tempo of a game, Scholes remains perfectly suited to international football. The new England manager, whoever it is, must make taking him to Ukraine and Poland a priority.
For now, Scholes’ focus will be on completing the job with United. When the 20th title is wrapped up, he will be able to afford himself a glass of champagne. And it will be fully deserved for the midfield magician.
Follow Greg Stobart on