Football: Was this the year we saw a shift in the balance of power?

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The Independent Online

In politics, as those who lived next to the Berlin Wall, or who were part of Margaret Thatcher's inner circle will testify, apparently impregnable authority can disintegrate with unexpected speed. So it is in sport. The West Indies, for so long cricket's leading force, suddenly found the supply of intimidating fast bowlers had dried up, and with it went their dominance. In women's tennis, Martina Hingis has been eclipsed by the Williams sisters. And in English football this year the hegemony of Manchester United began to show signs of collapse just as it seemed at its zenith.

Even by United's high standards this season was supposed to be exceptional. Having last season secured their seventh Premiership title in nine years with five games to spare, Sir Alex Ferguson, their driven manager, went shopping. For his final campaign Ferguson, who retires in June, lavished £47m on two players, the Dutch goalscorer Ruud van Nistelrooy and the Argentine goalmaker Juan Sebastian Veron. They joined a luminous collection of stars including pin-ups David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. No player of note departed. With his jigsaw complete Ferguson's target was the European Cup, the final of which is in his home city of Glasgow in May. That they would collect a record fourth successive league crown went as read.

The only men who did not follow the script were United's opponents. Six of them dethroned United in the league, and two further defeats have been suffered in Europe. United, by mid-December, were 11 points off the domestic leadership.

Beckham and Scholes have been dropped, Giggs and Keane have been injured, Veron is variable. Even when all have been fit and in demand, Ferguson has struggled to incorporate them into the same team. And that is just the midfield. The defence, almost unbreachable last year, has caused Ferguson most headshaking. At the beginning of the season Jaap Stam, the commanding Dutch centre-half, was unexpectedly sold days after extracts from his book criticising Ferguson appeared in the press. He was replaced by Laurent Blanc of France, once a great player but now 36. With injuries further disrupting their once-telepathic understanding, the defence has made a string of blunders, with the worst being committed by the goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez.

One of these came at Anfield, home of Liverpool, their greatest rivals. Liverpool were the Manchester United of the Seventies and Eighties, winning11 championships and four European Cups. But in 1990 the glory ceased. Just as Ferguson's efforts to rid United of a drinking culture were bearing fruit, a coterie of self-centred players, nicknamed the Spice Boys, corroded the Liverpool dressing room. Eventually Liverpool brought in a Frenchman, Gérard Houllier. He gradually weeded out the bad influences, completing the task by selling the wayward local hero Robbie Fowler this month.

This year Liverpool won five cups. Now they aim to win the league. But they are too dependent on Michael Owen, the quicksilver goalscorer whose recent honouring as European Player of the Year, announced the same day Beckham just failed to become World Player of the Year, seemed emblematic of a shift in the balance of power. When Owen was injured and Liverpool slipped, United rallied. Whether this is the last gasp of a beaten regime or their first step to regaining command, remains to be seen.

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