Football: United's burgeoning spirit an ominous sign for rivals

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The Independent Online
NEITHER ARSENAL nor Manchester United are likely to win the title but in Sir Alex Ferguson's eyes they succeeded in producing perhaps the best match in the short history of the Premiership.

This afternoon's tussle with Birmingham City will probably only match Tuesday's encounter at Highbury for the number of points United collect. The match which saw United overhaul a 2-1 half-time deficit to win 4-2, said Ferguson, "raised the bar" in the Premiership. "It produced a level of football you will not see matched many times," he said. "To get that kind of drama, intensity and pure excitement in a single game is amazing.

"It is a tribute to every player involved. They raised the bar and in doing so produced what might have been the best game the Premiership has ever seen." That accolade usually goes to Liverpool's 4-3 victory over Newcastle United at Anfield in April 1996, settled by Stan Collymore's last-minute goal. That match had a greater resonance in that it determined the destination of the championship while Tuesday's epic will probably only decide who finishes second.

Nevertheless, it was a thunderous endorsement of United's will to win. Ferguson has soft spots for many of the sides he has built at United but the 1994 Double winners, the team of Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona and the young Roy Keane would probably be his favourite. He called them "warriors" and there was something about that word in United's display on Tuesday. It began with Keane's confrontation with Patrick Vieira in the tunnel and climaxed in a remarkable fightback to wrest the contest from Arsenal's grasp.

"Moments like that reveal your character and you saw Manchester United's character then," Ferguson said yesterday. "Our determination is great but you have to balance that with the performance also. It's not always about the will to win, it's about the ability to play and the goals they scored were fantastic." Team spirit is not something that can be manufactured and Ferguson concedes that in recent times at Old Trafford a certain amount was lacking. "We have brought a lot of young players in; Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Darren Fletcher. They don't have that spirit that the Keanes and Scholes have developed over a decade. Now, you see Rooney and Ronaldo improve every week and you hope that is linked to that developing bond."

Both Alan Smith and Gabriel Heinze would have fitted very easily into that 1994 side. Smith, obviously so, although Ferguson conceded he was less sure about the Argentinian left-back, who is beginning to prove one of his finest signings. "I knew he would be suited to English football but I did not realise what a great warrior he is. He is a competitor of the highest order."