James Lawton: An heir to Keane and Cantona will be high on Ferguson's birthday wishlist

Ferguson looks with growing concern for a player to share the burden on Wayne Rooney

There can be no doubt about quite what sits at the top of Sir Alex Ferguson's wish list as he prepares for his 68th birthday tomorrow. He will certainly not, we can be sure, be placated by a consignment of the finest claret – or even a plump little voodoo doll dressed in the uniform of one of his least favourite referees.

What the old warrior wants more than anything else, we have to believe, is the kind of player around whom he has built so much of his football might.

He wants a Keane or a Cantona or a Ronaldo, imperfect characters all of them but each one imbued with the quality that makes a team believe in its ability to transform any situation, however unpromising.

Ferguson's problem is scarcely unique at the top of the Premier League, as the most recent action, and the softening odds on Chelsea running away with the title, confirm.

Chelsea lack confidence, says Carlo Ancelotti, and the reason is evident enough. For some time their most influential players, and most notably Frank Lampard, have suggested that, contrary to earlier impressions, they are not operating from some limitless reservoir of energy and ambition.

Indeed, the more you look at the title race the more you have to wonder from where will come the most decisive thrust, the most enduring influence.

Where, for example, would the improved possibilities of Arsenal, who have shortened to 7-2 against Chelsea's 4-5 and United's 9-4 in a three-horse race, have been on Sunday without the brief but deadly intervention of the injury-plagued Cesc Fabregas? They would still be flashing intermittently out in the ether of mere hope.

However, it is surely at Old Trafford where the deficit in that old force of charismatic presence at the heart of the team is most apparent.

Yes, we know Ryan Giggs remains a miracle of perseverance and character and residual skill but it is a well Ferguson knows he can go to only so often.

Paul Scholes can defy the years, brilliantly, from time to time, but increasingly this is a gift rather than a certainty. It means that the burden on such as Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Anderson increases by the match. Nani? Plainly he is not what his speed and his skill once might have suggested and Ferguson has made this official.

Where does it leave the most successful manager in the history of English football?

It has him facing, at an age when the fire had long dwindled in the men from whom he drew his greatest inspiration – Busby, Stein, Shankly – the need to restate, perhaps for one last time, his singular ability to reanimate a champion team.

The January window, with its offerings of largely marginal talent in the possession of those some way from realistic hopes of major success, does not offer a compelling view of instant salvation.

So Ferguson has to look within and hope that he sees possibilities of conviction not so apparent at Hull over the weekend.

Yes, Wayne Rooney regained with stirring force that which he had given away and no doubt he remains the single most persuasive hope for both his club and his country. But the talent of Rooney has for some time been marked by the weight of the burdens it has been required to carry.

The great worry is that the single most arresting football presence produced in these islands since the swift rise and fall of Paul Gascoigne is sometimes stretched too thin, both in the shirt of United and England.

In the Champions League final in Rome he was obliged to operate wide and became, with dismaying effect, almost peripheral. Now, with Ronaldo gone, the weight of his responsibility has redoubled and, for such a luminously gifted player, there are times when he seems to carry it with something less than joy.

It shouldn't be so surprising. Rooney, plainly, is a brooder. Keane brooded, also, but it was mostly on the degree of his own invincibility and his guardianship of his team's best chances. Cantona was both a brooder and a dreamer and his personal drummer beat out rhythms exclusive to his own eccentric nature. Ronaldo simply responded to the imperatives of the moment, and, helpfully for his team-mates, they often involved devastating the composure of the opposition.

Even before the decimation of the defence, United were showing, inevitably, the effect of the absence of a player with such overwhelming self-belief.

Michael Carrick's lack of striking progress, along with that of Dimitar Berbatov, must be particularly disappointing to Ferguson. Last mid-season, when United took a grip on their third straight title, Carrick seemed to be moving into a new dimension. His passing, almost always beautiful both in its conception and execution, was augmented by a new authority, a force both in creating attack and reading points of weakness in defence. But by season's end such authority had all but disappeared and this time it has yet to re-emerge.

Anderson is not marching forward, no more than Berbatov. So Ferguson looks with increasing concern for the player who is both willing and able to share the expectations placed on Rooney, someone able regularly to inject into a tight game a decisive force.

Here, surely, we have the strongest explanation of why the title race is currently drifting into a default mode. It certainly gave extra meaning to the look of anguish that crossed Arsène Wenger's face moments after he had celebrated the second of Fabregas's beautifully struck goals in the potentially significant victory over Aston Villa. The fear that his most influential player had aggravated an injury was hard and, his expression seemed to say, possibly ruinous to his hopes.

It is an impasse made the more intriguing by the sense that Roberto Mancini, free of the kind of pressure that required Mark Hughes both to make his big-time reputation and assemble an instant team, will finally be able to clear a way to some solid football values at Manchester City.

This surely brings an additional edge to the birthday reflections of the man who will sip his claret tomorrow in the knowledge that once again he is obliged to prove that, whatever his resources, he still knows how to win. It would be a huge challenge for a man of any age. In this case, though, it is probably still the greatest of gifts.

Schumacher has already set pulses racing

Depending on your point of view, Michael Schumacher was either inspiring or insufferably self-satisfied when he officially challenged the young lions Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.

Yet anyone who ever him saw race – and one thinks particularly of an extraordinary, rain- splashed day at Circuit de Catalunya when he not only won the Spanish Grand Prix but drove on to an entirely separate dimension – had to feel an old rush of expectation when he suggested his comeback might have something to do with old stirrings as much as new possibilities.

Schumacher claimed: "I look for the fight, the wheel to wheel ... the fire has started up again."

When he said that, you were reminded not of a fiercely calculating, power-obsessed automaton. You were back in the thrall of a born racer whose achievements are unlikely to ever be surpassed.

Ntini's selection is anything but progress

Another rash shot leaves Kevin Pietersen still short of some ultimate vindication in his homeland. However, who can say that his arguments against the policy of affirmative action in the selection of the South African team – such a controversial aspect of his self-imposed exile – have not strengthened hugely in the sad matter of the great Makhaya Ntini's 101st Test appearance?

Those who say the encouragement and development of African cricketers was both vital and desirable in the aftermath of apartheid can point to the glory of Ntini's career.

Yet it is painful to note that the once shoeless hero of the Cape now represents the inherent weakness of any system that does not insist the best players play.

Ntini's experience in Durban has been a nightmarish example of what can happen when that principle is set aside for no better reason than political calculation. Friedel de Wet, the hero of the first Test, should have walked into the current side. But he didn't, for no better reason than he was white and Ntini was black. Whatever this is, amid all the stupendous achievement of a nation attempting to remake itself in the wake of terrible injustice, it is certainly not progress.

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