James Lawton: After the civil war, United learn to battle again

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The Independent Football

By half-time, the brooding television shots of Roy Keane, still no doubt weighing his own angst-filled agenda had become redundant, and as Sir Alex Ferguson moved down to the touchline as though releasing himself from some private hell, United continued to trumpet the message that at last they were ready to fight again.

However, in the glory there was a gut feeling that wouldn't go away; the more they fought the more you had to pose the question: what had they been doing for the last two years or so?

There was no prize to go with the correct answer to this question. Comparisons between what was happening here, and what had passed for United performances in Middlesbrough and Paris, were simply too stark to permit any doubt. They had been floating along in the misbegotten belief that producing a superior performance, when it mattered, was a bit like turning a tap. It isn't. It is a habit of mind. It is a discipline. It is a spirit, and in the first half you could see it was back. Darren Fletcher, Alan Smith and John O'Shea, who had taken the brunt of Keane's acid outpouring, didn't suddenly look like world-beaters, but they were performing like serious-minded young professionals. Even Rio Ferdinand looked as though he had reported for serious duty.

United had shape and, most wondrous of all, it was as if Paul Scholes had shaken himself out of a nightmare and found himself in the middle of a real team again. The years just seemed to roll away. Yes, there may have been an element of luck to the goal that pushed United in front. If Fletcher had to swear on a Bible he might have to concede that it was his intention to head the ball back across the face of Chelsea's goal rather than have it gently arch its way over John Terry's head, but no one in Old Trafford was in the mood to launch that kind of interrogation. The move that brought the goal stretched Chelsea to their seams. Cristiano Ronaldo, another United player for whom the days of promise are sliding into a harsher need for consistent delivery of extraordinary talent, had crossed the ball with beautiful weight.

United were motivated in a way that had not been evident for so long - and what was the spur? One last defiant cry of rage by the embattled master of Old Trafford? Or was it a deep fear of humiliation by the team who have been so relentessly supplanting them as the No 1 in the land?

The truth is that complacency will return to Old Trafford after this step back from the brink of collapse only with the direst consequences. There was no doubt that United had been brought to a fine pitch of pride and reawakened ambition by the arrival of Chelsea. If Middlesbrough could slice through their defence so easily, if the labourings of Lille could force them into defeat, what might United suffer at the hands of Jose Mourinho's men? Well, it was plainly too painful a thought to contemplate as United came out running - and running.

Of course there were other grace notes. Ronaldo has probably never played better in a big game, if we discount that almost meaningless acquisition of the FA Cup a year and a half ago against Millwall. He took the ball and an impressive amount of responsibility as Chelsea began to apply serious pressure in the second half. Scholes would not know how to hold back on commitment and his despair in the recent nightmare was quite terrible to behold. But now he had a little of the old sharpness and purpose. Once again, he was able to thread through passes and run eagerly for their return. He had the scent of something better than inevitable defeat.

What was happening, plainly, was a whole team gathering around a point of recognition that the slide had gone quite far enough. It meant that salvation would not come with the kind of football that once turned the sky red above Old Trafford. No, if Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo were still in the market with such possibilities, they might have to wait for a day when belief and appetite were a little more firmly re-established. But in the mean time, United could fight - and they could also make a little luck for themselves.

They could weather the flow of Chelsea's sharply improved football in the second half - and bless their good fortune that the "Special One" Mourinho was something less than a coach of nerve and vision when he started juggling his team as the minutes ticked by. A few weeks ago he was lauded for working his way through three formations on the way to victory. Here he committed the folly of tinkering as his team began to establish a grip on the game.

Carlton Cole, Eidur Gudjohnsen, and Shaun Wright-Phillips came on without significant effect. Indeed, it is debatable whether Cole got a serious kick. It was a respite that Ferguson, the old fighter, no doubt welcomed, and his team deserved. Now comes the tricky part of the operation. Now comes the need to do it week by week, game by game.