James Lawton: Ferguson faces final throw of dice and must walk away if Glazers close window

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The Independent Football

He probably did not need reminding but Sir Alex Ferguson knows better than ever now that there are no moratoriums in football. You can be charged over and over again with the same offence. He would also, you have to guess, privately admit that at least until the January transfer shop window, he is bang to rights.

The indictment, the one that was revived inevitably when United again failed to score in a Champions' League match - this time against a Villarreal team which in the absence of their superior playmaker, Juan Riquelme, could aspire to no more than technical competence - is the one that nails all faltering empires.

It concerns a failure of replenishment that two years ago was becoming as evident as it was on the night the ghost of Roy Keane was saluted at Old Trafford.

This reality made much of Tuesday night's suggestion of sudden crisis quite surreal. In fact, United again solved one of the problems which had so inflamed their dwindling ramrod, a shortfall of hunger and commitment that came back on a powerful tide in the victory over Chelsea, particularly. It was still there against Villarreal, most markedly at the start and the finish of the match, but then so was the fault line which has been visible for so long. "Keano, Keano," the fans cried, but the departure of which Keane were they mourning? Surely not the one who had so rancorously been worrying a crisis he could no longer solve? Yes, of course Keane was right that Alan Smith and Darren Fletcher could get hold of some elixir of youth and play for another 30 years without beginning to fill the vacuum created by the failure adequately to himself.

Yes, he was right that Ferguson had first lost his way when he invested £28m in the fragile virtuoso Juan Sebastian Veron, and that no one who followed - Eric Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, David Bellion, Liam Miller, Smith and Fletcher - was cut from the required cloth.

But then for anyone with a little distance from this eviscerating debate, the Villarreal match was merely still another insight into how it is rather than how it might have been.

How it is for Ferguson, surely, is that he has just a matter of weeks now to produce a strategy, and have it accepted by the Glazer family, that would return United to true competitiveness at the highest level. It has been the imperative since Veron failed and Keane served notice that he was fighting a losing battle against the years.

However you dress it, the great Fergie is facing his last throw. If it comes off, who knows what a revival of his old appetite might create? If it does not, if he loses out on Michael Ballack and fails to inject another new and significant element into midfield to support the unlimited demands on the brilliance of Wayne Rooney, it is hard to see how the manager can avoid the last option. This one is to walk away in the most dignified way possible.

The need for vital surgery would certainly not have disappeared if the force of Rooney's first impact on this week's game had brought the rewards that seemed inevitable as he streamed, unstoppably, on the Villarreal goal. Such a breakthrough would in no way have invested Smith or Fletcher in qualities that would breed confidence against opponents of authentic class. But it would have silenced the chants for Keano.

It would have brought another step, though no doubt a temporary one, from the nagging truth that if the unique qualities of the Irishman cannot be perfectly replaced, players of a higher order than Smith and Fletcher are required in the areas he used to patrol with such authority. Ferguson could not replace Keane because another one did not exist, and when such a force as Michael Essien became available, only Chelsea were able to meet the price.

It means that Ferguson's challenge can only be met with the help of the Glazer family. If they do not extend it in January, if they lack the nerve, or the confidence in the man who made the modern United what they were when the takeover money was rustled up, they might just as well invite their manager to clear out his office.

With Gary Neville fit again and only Gabriel Heinze absent among sure-fire first-team selections, the overall inventory of United's resources is plainly not so discouraging. Rio Ferdinand may just, like St Ignatius, have received the wound that made him think. Rooney is Rooney, an astonishingly youthful and consistent expression of the highest talent. Ruud van Nistelrooy has stirred himself to more meaningful effort in recent games.

Paul Scholes, at a mere 31, could surely be revived in a better equipped midfield. Cristiano Ronaldo could scarcely have run harder than against Villarreal, and he too will have better luck without increasing his willingness to work. These are not the scrapings of a beaten army; they are the elements of a unit that could fight again to considerable, perhaps even ultimate effect. Imagine them, for example, had they been augmented by the signings of Ronaldinho and Arjen Robben, men who Ferguson had reason to believe had been delivered to the club.

This time Ferguson has to push to the limits of any authority he retains. He has to say you are either in the battle or not. If the chants for Keano said anything either constructive or realistic, it was that United are doomed the moment they try to live with mediocrity. Maybe it was simple hubris that persuaded Ferguson he could make something of the likes of Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson, Smith and Fletcher.

If it was, he surely knows better now.

The Glazers are no doubt aware that even if they throw in enough money to buy a Ballack or a Riquelme there are no guarantees. But then what is the alternative? It is to watch a great football empire shrivel away. That would hurt Ferguson's soul as much as it did Roy Keane's. More relevantly, it would be hell on the Glazer profits.

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