James Lawton: Victory over Ferguson can buy Villas-Boas time to shape destiny

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If things go quite as well as Andre Villas-Boas hopes at Old Trafford tomorrow afternoon we may be seeing rather more than the season's first serious dispute of power. We might, give or take the possible interventions of Manchester City, be seeing battle lines drawn for quite a bit of the rest of the decade.

Certainly a huge amount could depend on the extent of the credibility the 33-year-old Villas-Boas, starting now, can build in the jaws of the latest statement from the oldest and most successful manager in English football.

It is one of withering authority from Sir Alex Ferguson, who while 36 years the Portuguese's senior, might, for all the accumulation of staggering success, still be pounding the streets of ambition for the first time.

A fascinating game has a very good chance of happening but maybe more compelling is the extraordinary juxtaposition of age and youth, the Gibraltar sturdiness of Ferguson's personal situation and the financial complexities and brinkmanship of his owners, and the vulnerability that Villas-Boas, for the moment at least, must share with all his predecessors in the age of Roman Abramovich.

Tomorrow may be just a nudge in one direction or another but then one dislodged stone can start an avalanche and, who knows, a moment of resurrection by Fernando Torres, a touch of subtlety from the coach's tattooed and quite often luminous countryman Raul Meireles or another confident strike from Juan Mata and, who knows, Villas-Boas could be on his way in the manner of his mentor Jose Mourinho when he knocked Ferguson out of the 2003-04 Champions League.

Mourinho knew at that moment he arrived with optimum force. His dash along the touchline was a more energetic version of Ferguson's own run with outstretched arms at the Nou Camp five years earlier when he won his first Champions League title.

Quite such a crossing of the Rubicon may not be available to Villas-Boas at Old Trafford tomorrow but what a rebuttal statement victory would be after United's – and City's – dazzling start to the Premier League campaign.

It would say that if his new patron Abramovich was ever going to learn about the realities of football – rather than the mechanics of mere spending power – now would be the time. There is always a chance, of course, that the rouble has already dropped.

Perhaps it happened at the end of last season when United swept Chelsea out of the Champions League and the oligarch looked into the ruins of his disastrous meddling – the crude and destructive firing of Ray Wilkins and the bizarre £50m imposition of a mis-firing, less than mightily fit Torres at a pivotal point of a season when Carlo Ancelotti, nobody's fool, was promising a fightback – and wondered, finally, if there might not be another way.

A way, that is, that didn't leave so much casually drawn blood on the managerial floor. A way that gave his new manager, whoever he might be, a vestige of respect, a sense that he might just be in charge of his own ability to shape a winning football team.

Villas-Boas may not yet have set the Fulham Road alight but he might be said to have achieved the most vital work that faced him when he took over from the amiable Ancelotti.

He has stripped down the old certainties of the dressing room and, in effect, said that if he is to go down it will be by his own hand and not some sudden shift of loyalty by stars who some time ago were handed the priority of career survival, rather than some unshakeable place in the future of the club from which they had received so much financial reward for so long.

The young coach has placed his compatriot Meireles in the dressing room for his new eyes and ears, quite apart from his impressive creativity on the field. The coach has already invested plenty of faith in the new man Mata – and been swiftly rewarded. He has challenged Torres' view of the world, imposed the old imperative that says it doesn't matter who you were yesterday, the issue is today – and tomorrow.

You can only do so much at one time. Villas-Boas was plainly delighted by a successful Champions League start against Bayer Leverkusen and its evidence of gathering conviction.

It is tomorrow, though, when he reaches for the prize that helped make the career of Mourinho and, Villas-Boas knows well enough, would give so much momentum to the young coach who used to flutter so eagerly in his shadow.

The greatest hope is that it would be a victory over Ferguson which indeed makes Abramovich think. Maybe he might consider all the waste, and the brutalities of the past, and wonder about the point of buying a brilliant young coach without giving him the guarantee of a little time to grow into the challenge – and build a little of the authority achieved by the man he now faces in one of the great moments of a so far meteoric career.

Yes, it might well be a great match. Better still, it might just be historic.