On Wednesday, April 11, Wigan Athletic upset Premier League leaders Manchester United 1-0 on Shaun Maloney's 50th minute goal. This loss, along with Manchester City's 4-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, reduced the Red Devils' lead to five points. Even if City beats United at home, they'll still have to make up two points in the standings.
What concerns me most about the Red Devils' loss isn't the fact that Wigan beat them, it's that it happened with midfielder Paul Scholes out of the lineup. The club was struggling to keep up with Manchester City when he came out of retirement this past January. With Scholes taking charge of the midfield, Manchester United has surged past City into first place.
I thought that maybe it was a combination of Scholes and some outstanding performances from Antonio Valencia and others which brought the team back. However, it's becoming clear that Scholes was the catalyst all along. I find that both frustrating and reassuring as the season draws to a close. I'm glad that United has such a strong leader in the midfield, but I'm saddened that the club has become so dependent on a player who was retired just four months ago.
Fortunately, Scholes wasn't held out of Wednesday's match because he was injured. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson kept him out of the lineup so that Scholes could have some well-earned rest. The problem is that the rest of the team failed to respond without him. United's midfield was terrible against Wigan. The unit will have to play better for the team's remaining five games if it hopes to hold off City. This is especially true when you consider that both Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck appear to be out of form up front. Fortunately, Manchester United has announced that Scholes will be in the lineup this weekend against Aston Villa.
Meanwhile, Manchester United has to contend with their mysterious rivals. City have struggled in recent weeks, but their dominating victory over West Bromwich brought them to within striking distance. They do have two rather tough road matches coming up, though, including this weekend at Norwich City.
If City can beat United at home on April 30, then I think Manchester City's season will come down to beating a motivated Newcastle United at St. James' Park on May 6. I doubt that City takes all nine points from these three games, but I think they have to in order to claim the title. Manchester United have the easier schedule with three out of their five remaining matches at home. If they can settle down and recover quickly from the Wigan loss, I predict that the Red Devils will hold on to the title over Manchester City by two points.
Derek Ciapala has been a fan of Manchester United since the World Cup in 1994. His favorite Red Devils' moment is when they won their 19th English Championship in 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @dciapala.