MANCHESTER // For once, there was no remarkable comeback from Manchester United, no dramatic triumph secured at the last and no addition to the list of improbable United victories. Come the final whistle, Sir Alex Ferguson was glowering, not dancing. A routine victory, professionally achieved, mattered little. United's season ended in anti-climax, determined 200 miles south at Stamford Bridge. Long before the final whistle, the goading Stoke fans were celebrating John Terry and chorusing "You're not champions any more". Slightly premature then, it is factual now. United's three-year reign is over. Most cuttingly, there was a chant of "There's only one Malcolm Glazer."
The protests against the American's ownership were intensified, the green-and-gold scarves displayed in vocal opposition at the final whistle after the release of smoke bombs outside the club shop and stink bombs by the directors' entrance before the game. For United supporters, off-field events have left a foul smell. The glint of a trophy could camouflage the dissatisfaction about the debts caused by the profiteers from Florida. Second place cannot. In 12 months, United have banked a vast sum from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo, declined to invest some of it in Carlos Tevez and failed in their objective to secure the historic fourth title. As the fans recognise, they are not unrelated. In that context, finishing a point behind the eventual winners ranks as an achievement. "I think we can be proud," said Ferguson. "We've challenged very strongly for a fourth title in a row. I think it was always going to be a hard ask to expect Wigan to get something [against Chelsea] and when they went down to 10 men, all our hopes evaporated."
United nevertheless did their part. They were comfortably good enough to see off Stoke. Before the breakthrough was made, Dimitar Berbatov had spurned a hat-trick of opportunities, clipping the cross bar with one header. His latest display of profligacy did not cost United. This was one win accomplished, too, without a goal from Wayne Rooney. The opener was a mess from a Stoke perspective. Following Giggs's corner, the ball ricocheted around the penalty area via Nemanja Vidic's head, Andy Wilkinson's right foot and Dean Whitehead's back before falling for Darren Fletcher to finish. Then Berbatov held off Wilkinson's challenge before squaring the ball for Giggs to slide his shot under Asmir Begovic.
A third came via a United alumnus. Rooney's cross was sliced into his own net by Danny Higginbotham, whose career began at Old Trafford. Finally, Ji-sung Park headed in another Giggs corner, though the Korean was only involved after Rooney departed. "He aggravated his groin again," said Ferguson. "I don't think it's serious. I think he'll be OK for England." For Rooney, it was a day of double disappointment. Didier Drogba's hat-trick deprived him of the Golden Boot. Chelsea's form denied United a more prestigious title. "We know how hard it is to win it, we've won the last three," Ferguson said. "I congratulate Carlo [Ancelotti] because it is a wonderful achievement."