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Manchester United shocked, City’s back, and England’s race is still dormant

Apr 12, 2012, 12:51 PM EDT

alex ferguson Getty Images

Manchester United stinks. Manchester City’s good again. Chelsea’s not completely reborn, and Liverpool has a heart. English Premier League, bloody hell.

United’s face plant at Wigan is overshadowing the match day’s other surprises, mostly because it undermined our most reliable hypothesis. Trying to explain why an inferior Red Devils team was besting rival City, the easiest explanation was manager Alex Ferguson’s superiority. He may not have the best car, but he sure knows the course (goes the metaphor that I just created). But if that’s the case, how did Manchester United lose at Wigan? Wigan!

Amid our cloud of incredulity this detail might get lost, but Wigan beat people. Yeah, I know – I was so surprised, too, but this kind of stuff is on record, and particularly in March and April, the Latics have been able to shock a few titans. Two years ago, it was late-season, home wins over Liverpool and Arsenal that helped perserve survival (Roberto Martínez had also engineered a win over Chelsea earlier that season). Now, Wigan have won at Liverpool and, just over two weeks later, taken full points from United.

It’s like the reverse Steve Bruce. Under Martínez’s predecessor, Wigan would survive on the back of relatively strong starts while horrible finishes made it seem the ex-United defender was working some sort of voodoo in the season’s first half (we know better, now). Under Martínez, pundits spend seven months calling the Latics hopeless only to see them find survival in April.

After yesterday’s win, Wigan sits 17th and have a two-point lead on 18th place Bolton. After this weekend’s trip to Arsenal, Wigan close at Fulham, versus Newcastle, at Blackburn, and home to Wolves.

Back to the United result. It’s hard not to think Alex Ferguson was thinking bigger picture. At least, that’s one way we can continue our deification of the United boss. As evidence, look to the 65th minute, when Wayne Rooney was brought off for Nani. Were the Premier League title race in any serious doubt, there’s no way Rooney watches the final 25 minutes from the bench. It seems more likely that Ferguson, in the face of United’s pathetic display, started seeing the match as a learning moment. Taking off the man who could have challenged Shaun Maloney’s goal certainly sent a message. That the man was also one of the world’s highest paid players only underscored the message: Get your act together – all of you.

That Ferguson was able to do that speaks to how close the race was not. Today, of course it’s closer, but Manchester City still need a lot of help, part of the reason Roberto Mancini’s sheepish about their title chances. United is still up five with five to play. Even if City defeats United at the Ettihad on Apr. 30, they still need help from their red rivals (admittedly, something that seems more likely after yesterday). And even if they get help from United, they can’t stumble.

As remarkable as yesterday was, it would have to happen again before there’s a race in England. Perhaps it was premature to think it done and dusted, but title race is still dormant.

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