James Lawton: Ferguson knows rivals are gaining ground

Who can discount United when they come to play as they eventually did at Old Trafford?
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Manchester City may be the future with their desert windfall and a manager in Roberto Mancini of class and achievement but they know a lot more now about the difficulty of separating Manchester United from their past.

This surely is the meaning of United's joint-record eighth appearance in the League Cup final. A relatively minor prize in itself, and not much to set against the potentially catastrophic borrowing habits of the American owners, it still carries a massive value in a week when City were ultimately brushed aside.

For how long is no doubt a matter of fierce conjecture, but there is a certain reality which United reasserted superbly in the second half of the semi-final second leg on Wednesday night. It is that Sir Alex Ferguson's team retain the capacity to reach down for the core values which have brought such extraordinary success over the last two decades.

This side of financial meltdown, it is likely to represent for some time the standard by which all of English football must be judged.

Perhaps Arsenal have the wit to maintain their challenge, and give it new impetus in Sunday's Premier League collision with United at the Emirates, maybe Chelsea and the resurgent Frank Lampard have too much strength and motivation for everybody.

Yet who can discount United when they come to play as they eventually did at Old Trafford against City, when they go back to that which they do best, which is to attack in sufficient numbers to exploit the superb talent of Wayne Rooney?

There have been times when this advantage has been neglected, when Rooney has been obliged to do too much work on his own, and thus inevitably lose a vital edge. However, the requirement for increased support for Rooney became an imperative when Mancini's well-organised team threatened to absorb the threat of the England man and it was plainly one that was ferociously engaged at half-time.

The result was a thrilling confirmation of all those strengths which have formed for so long the foundation of Ferguson's regime: genuine attacking nerve, some virtuoso performances and the belief that if you work hard enough, on a wide front, you will get your reward.

Whatever happens in the rest of the season, however well, or not, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes keep their legs and their competitive confidence, Ferguson's most significant prize was not a place in the Carling Cup final but the confirmation that at 68 he can still identify a raw, huge set-piece challenge and play to all the old strengths.

Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick did this with a combination of fierce commitment and sharp-wittedness. Rio Ferdinand's troubling agitation no doubt reflected the tension that has plainly built in his long absence and if City had been able to feed on Carlos Tevez's late, brilliantly adroit strike, the decision to risk an extra match suspension for the defender in the cause of victory on Wednesday might have carried some damaging repercussions. One of them would have come in the claim that United had announced their desperation to beat down City, and that they had failed, perhaps even been unmasked.

That possibility perished in Rooney's stoppage-time strike, if not the growing impression that, under Mancini, City are indeed positioned to threaten United in a way unknown for 40 years. City, unquestionably, have confirmed the danger they now present not just to United but all of English football and beyond.

It is a natural consequence of injecting experience and knowledge into the previous football illiteracy of equating sudden, vast wealth with the ability instantly to build a winning team. The Kaka lunge last year was embarrassing, the throwing of cash at Robinho a disaster. Now you can see the work of an authentic football man who has arrived on his own terms. You can see it in the demeanour of certain players, the sense that they no longer take anything, and least of all their own good luck, for granted.

Mancini handled defeat with considerable grace. He said it was more a matter of sadness than anger. He did not blame his players, they had done well and they had other challenges now in the Premier League and the FA Cup. He was very much the manager mourning a false step rather than a failed campaign.

Ferguson said that he was proud of the effort of his team, as well he might have been. Their greatest achievement was to be recognisably Manchester United, a team that takes winning to be not a hope but a presumption born of right.

You can cite a 100 examples of such an attitude, most obviously the one that came at the Nou Camp 11 years ago when, whatever Ferguson says, Bayern Munich had deservedly played their way to at least one hand on the European Cup. Of course it was battered away, as was that of Juventus earlier in the tournament when Roy Keane launched a stunning fight back.

Mancini's predecessor Mark Hughes was the victim when United unfurled such self-belief earlier this season, when Michael Owen stole a 4-3 victory. Now the Italian has a better sense of what he is against.

United may have some problems, but they are certainly not psychological. This, you have to believe, will not be lost on whoever is chosen to replace the man who this week won himself another lease of competitive life. The most likely successor, we have to believe, is Jose Mourinho. The odds still say he would inherit a going concern.