Sir Alex Ferguson, for his part, may have learned that time is now catching up with Paul Scholes, who was ineffective for an hour and was replaced shortly after QPR took a shock lead. Taking a shock lead was of course the worst thing the visitors could have done, with United specialising in chasing games this season, yet short of waiting until the 89th minute to score it is difficult to know what opponents ought to try. Ferguson acknowledged that Norwich had been the better team for the whole 90 minutes last week, though not too many sides will be able to match that.
The first half was a dismal affair, which might have been enlivened had Jamie Mackie’s headed goal from Djibril Cissé’s excellent cross been allowed to stand instead of being disallowed, correctly, for the narrowest of offsides. United going behind just before the interval to QPR’s only attack of the half might have been just the thing to wake them up. While the number of times they have come from behind to win games this season has been well documented, United now appear to be entering a phase where unless they go behind they cannot summon any urgency.
Either that or Scholes is finally getting too old, for there was nothing clicking in a United midfield that looked short of ideas. Not since Ray Wilkins left have United moved sideways so often to such little effect, and though Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck were playing just behind Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie the home side’s wealth of attacking talent struggled to make any impact. Rooney had a couple of shots saved in the first half but nothing Julio Cesar needed to worry too much about, and apart from two decent pull-backs by Welbeck that went to waste the best United could muster were penalty claims by Scholes and Young. Both were turned down, though both had a decent case, with Young possibly suffering from his reputation.
If United expected to improve in the second half their plans received a jolt when Mackie put the ball into the net again just seven minutes after the restart, and this time it counted. United had produced nothing of note after half time, yet when QPR won a rare corner to gain upfield position they took full advantage. Kieron Dyer’s shot from a narrow angle was only parried by Anders Lindegaard, and standing almost on the goal line as he had been when waiting for the corner Mackie could not miss.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s response was to withdraw Scholes and Young, sending on Anderson and Javier Hernandez in their place. The game was not transformed immediately, but once United had levelled from a set-piece just after an hour, it settled into a familar pattern with the bit now between the home side’s teeth and the urgency and attacking fluency magically restored.
Jonny Evans scored first, after Welbeck had headed down from Rooney’s corner, then five minutes later Rooney’s next corner was met emphatically by Darren Fletcher on the six yard line. Old Trafford was on its feet in true rapture three minutes after that, when Ferguson’s two substitutes combined for a goal of genuine class from Hernandez, which just goes to show what three goals in eight minutes can do to lift spirits. Just before Evans headed in, there had been audible groans of discontent from the home supporters, yet United finished the day back on top of the table.