James Lawton: Ferdinand slows United's return to peak position

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson's bullish belief that more familiar days are beginning to roll again for Manchester United was only briefly disturbed by Rio Ferdinand's latest bout of sleep-walking against Celtic this week. At the mention of Benfica, one of the teams who so unexpectedly barred United's passage to the knock-out phase of last season's Champions' League, Ferguson's jaw tightened on the prediction that being grouped again with the Lisbon club ensured that raw wounds would be spectacularly washed. "Watch out for that result," he said with a dramatic emphasis that might have brought a nod from Robert DeNiro.

But how realistic is the old general's belief that his team can finally break the hold of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea on domestic football - and at the same time strike out again for the peaks of the European game? The truth is that quite apart from the the success or otherwise of the efforts of Arsène Wenger and Rafael Benitez to shake Arsenal and Liverpool into anything like significant Premiership form, genuine intrigue has returned to the top of the English game.

It centres on a new and delicate balance of power between Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford. United didn't eviscerate Gordon Strachan's inexperienced defence, as some Scots had predicted, but at times they did play with a panache and self-belief that conjured memories of some of the best of Ferguson's work.

Both he and Mourinho have areas of play where they can claim ascendancy on current form, and the nature of their bragging rights only accentuates the sense that Chelsea's vast advantage in the transfer market no longer guarantees them a clear edge.

Though Ferdinand and his partner Wes Brown light-headedly stripped United's 3-2 victory over Celtic of much of the authority which would have flowed naturally from the thoroughbred running and touch of Louis Saha, the glimpses of brilliance from the returning Wayne Rooney and the quite timeless value of Paul Scholes's powers of midfield penetration, there is no doubt that United have won back some of their old élan. With the acrimony provoked by the collision of Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo in the World Cup apparently consigned to history, United's potential for attacking fluency currently outstrips that of Chelsea.

By comparison, at Stamford Bridge Andrei Shevchenko and Michael Ballack have, for the moment at least, merely created a sense of duplication and, at the highest level of expectation, maybe slightly shop-worn riches. This impression is only underlined when you consider that the front-line engine room of Chelsea is now inhabited exclusively by central midfielders, Ballack, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele. These are formidable men in their own right but there is little evidence of their ability to provide the necessary width - and wit - to maintain the club's old superiority easily in domestic condition.

But then if United's ability to compete in this area has been strikingly enhanced by the return of Scholes, and the possibility that given time and space Michael Carrick can add significantly to the team's attacking coherence, they cannot ignore the chronic uncertainties generated by Ferdinand and, it seems, whoever gets to share his duties.

Against Celtic the abberations of Ferdinand and Brown were redeemable because in Scholes, Saha and Rooney United had the attacking resources to be confident about their ability to make good the damage. Against a well-organised European defence, let alone a Barcelona or Milan, there could have been no such easy expectations. And this of course would apply especially to the challenge of getting back into a game against Chelsea.

Whatever his other points of pressure, of which the most nagging is surely is the belief that only Champions' League success will placate his paymaster Roman Abramovich, Mourinho can still point to the fundamental strength of any winning team. It is mean, resolute and outstandingly equipped defence.

Mourinho's sense of this priority has at no time been more explicit than in his clawing, shocking attempt to discredit William Gallas in his move to Arsenal.

If the Celtic match reminded us of anything, it was that United still have a congenital dilettante at the heart of their defence. A harsh judgement? Only when you forget that this gifted footballer is now in his 11th year as a top-flight professional. He will be 28 in a few months time. He is capable of charming the birds down from the eves of any stadium with his effortless control and silky distribution. But once again the old question is being asked of Rio Ferdinand. Does he really have the stone heart of a born defender? Is his most basic urge to deny or to create?

When was the last time that question was asked of John Terry or Ricardo Cavalho? It has never been voiced and until it is Jose Mourinho retains a vital advantage in a battle that never before has promised to be so close.