Football: United doubly inspired: Ian Ridley looks forward to final confirmation of the enduring quality of Alex Ferguson's side

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THE DOUBLE does not yield itself lightly. Only three times this century has the real thing of Championship and FA Cup bestowed its favours: to Tottenham Hotspur in 1961, Arsenal 10 years after and Liverpool in 1986. The supporters of an excellent Everton side fashioned by Howard Kendall in his first spell as manager in the mid- Eighties - and how distant must seem to them those days now - even adopted a theme tune: 'We're forever blowing Doubles'. Indeed, the very history of Manchester United, for whom history is a culture, illustrates how elusive is the achievement.

Next Saturday's FA Cup final against Chelsea carries memories for United of the Fifties, and the last time they retained the title. In 1957 they went to Wembley as champions expected to defeat Aston Villa comfortably. The team in their pomp, whose record of 28 league wins the present side will seek to match today and which was to be so cruelly ravaged by the Munich air crash but nine months later, were beaten 2-1.

Neither has Wembley this season been a happy hunting ground for United. Those Villains of Birmingham, in another uncomfortable echo of that era, have beaten them in the Coca- Cola Cup final. And it took the latest of volleys from Mark Hughes to save them from FA Cup exit at the hands of Oldham Athletic in the semi-final.

Add to this Chelsea's two 1-0 victories over United this season and the competition's innate, ever-fascinating perversity, and the case for an underdog having one last day in a riveting season of Cup football, illuminated by some bright sparks from the Endsleigh League, grows in conviction.

Yet greatness has been touching the palms of this United and the proximity of the opportunity to wrap their fingers around it is one Alex Ferguson will undoubtedly emphasise to them this week.

It is indeed hard to find any flaws in their assets. Save for some stumbling during the five- match suspension of the touchstone Eric Cantona, they strode to the title with an elan that has lifted the English club game from a functional phase to a potential new era to coincide with the arrival of Terry Venables as national coach.

The appeal of United is that they have fused the work ethic with technique, inviting comparison with the Milan team, the most English on the continent, who have dominated the European game. United's pace, moreover, gives them an ingredient to satisfy the domestic palate as well as the basis of a formula for success on the break in away ties in the Champions' Cup next season.

Arsenal, with their 1-0 win over Parma in the Cup-

Winners' Cup final, have demonstrated in the past week the enduring virtues of Englishness still envied by Europe, but their manager, George Graham, who himself had a splendid few days in his best elder statesman mode by making some lucid noises, conceded that his team needed more style to ease the burden on his admirable defence. United, meanwhile, will sooner rather than later need a defender of quality to replace their ageing captain, Steve Bruce; a marriage of the Arsenal defence to United's attack and midfield would be one made in heaven.

One does long for the day when an English side, in a last act of rehabilitation, sweep a final before them rather than eke out a single-goal win. Expecting to emulate Milan's 4-0 win over Steaua Bucharest of five years ago may be fanciful, but United's 2-1 defeat of Barcelona in the Cup-Winners' Cup final three years ago was a hint of their potential.

Of all the eye-catchers at Old Trafford, perhaps the eye- opener has been Andrei Kanchelskis. Ferguson's inclination was to play Lee Sharpe wide on the right with Giggs on the left but the Ukrainian's insistence that he was better qualified, backed by delivery of the goods when included, has added a dimension.

He has contributed 10 goals, in all competitions, to United's remarkable total of 38 from the wings - Giggs scoring 17 and Sharpe 11 - and with Cantona adding 23 and the resurgent Hughes 20, the days seem dim indeed when United went 20 years between George Best and Brian McClair without a scorer of 20 league goals.

The clipping of wings would seem to be the biggest test for Chelsea, who have achieved their best results with a three- man central defence and wider players as part of a midfield diamond. Before Chelsea's last appearance in the final, in 1970, the right-back David Webb said that he would be buying some bovver boots in the King's Road to deal with Eddie Gray. Chelsea's wide defensive players, whoever they may be - they have used six different on the left - might be in need of running spikes this time.

Naturally, though, it will be to Cantona that all eyes turn once more next Saturday to disprove again the canard that he is a big player for little games and a little one for big games.

Glenn Hoddle will have pondered the wisdom of man- marking, with Dennis Wise in his ranks as a reminder of Wimbledon's 1988 triumph over a double-chasing Liverpool when the winger was deputed by Don Howe to mark John Barnes. The Frenchman, however, seems to defy such a tactic with the uncanny simplicity of apparently standing still while agitated opponents remain on the move. Then vision and touch, which appear to have rubbed off on Hughes, take over.

Chelsea are not without hope, however. In Peacock they have an incisive player capable, once again, of disturbing United's shape in the way of Dalian Atkinson for Aston Villa in the Coca-Cola Cup final. If Hoddle has recovered from injury in time, too, his presence, perhaps as a substitute, offers Chelsea a new subtlety. In addition, the vulnerability of the goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, who seems more likely now to play, to the low-driven ball could bring reward. A more old-fashioned option might come from the bench, in Tony Cascarino's aerial presence. Alan Shearer has shown that United have a weakness if a good header of the ball can pull away from the central pair and jump against the full-backs.

Ah, Shearer. His goals have been the product of a Blackburn Rovers team who have led the aspirants, with Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United next in line, to United's panache, and but for allowing themselves to be bullied at Old Trafford on Boxing Day into conceding a late equaliser, they might have come closer still to the title. As it was, Paul Ince's goal was a turning point, even if not as pronounced a one as that by Hughes against Oldham, and the cushion of points United retained ultimately made their landing softer.

Legitimate physical presence has contributed to the essence of United but their excesses have sometimes sullied, even undermined them. Some have been tolerable in a game of such intensity and spontaneity; some not. If the integrity of the game does not suffice as an argument against, Arsenal's potentially damaging loss of Ian Wright from the Cup-Winners' Cup final will warn them of the dangers of indiscipline.

Blackburn learnt well enough from their Old Trafford experience to win the return. At the heart of their season's success - which will see them as one of, probably, six English representatives in Europe - was an effective shape of 4-4-2 that converted comfortably according to state of game to

4-2-4, as did United's. Cantona's roving eye and role was la difference. In the Liverpool way from which Keegan has also drawn much, Kenny Dalglish has a playing system into which squad players can slip smoothly with the minimum of disruption.

It has been a season when attacking talent has thrust itself thrillingly forward, once more with Shearer, Wright and Matthew Le Tissier, newly with Andy Cole, Chris Sutton, Les Ferdinand and Dean Holdsworth, to overshadow much mid-table mediocrity. They have flourished in part due to a dearth of outstanding defenders; perhaps the development of Tony Adams will inspire.

Next Saturday's final is likely to be more about attack - this being both sides' best form of defence - even if a Cup final rarely produces a goal feast. Though it inhibits players, it inspires some and United have the greater inspiration. Probably double, in fact.

(Photograph omitted)