James Lawton: Ferguson vindicated by rise of Ronaldinho

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The Independent Football

Whatever time machine we happen to live in, there is surely no hardship in giving Arsène Wenger and his men their due. Forget for a moment imploding standards in most of the Premiership - and defences often so compliant they lack only someone officially delegated to switch on the green light - men like Thierry Henry and Robert Pires have provided some of the most uplifting passages of play ever seen on a football field. If they do go on to an undefeated season they will have made a piece of imperishable history.

Whatever time machine we happen to live in, there is surely no hardship in giving Arsène Wenger and his men their due. Forget for a moment imploding standards in most of the Premiership - and defences often so compliant they lack only someone officially delegated to switch on the green light - men like Thierry Henry and Robert Pires have provided some of the most uplifting passages of play ever seen on a football field. If they do go on to an undefeated season they will have made a piece of imperishable history.

This is the time of Henry and Pires and Bergkamp, and if it is perhaps one when certain advantages have worked in their favour, only a curmudgeon would deny that they have brought to it some of the eternal qualities of the beautiful game.

However, we should also have a thought for the greatest victim of the spectacular re-emergence of an Arsenal team who were hardly anybody's idea of sure-fire champions at the start of the campaign they have dominated so brilliantly.

Specifically, we should try to catch and sympathise with the mood of Sir Alex Ferguson on Sunday night when Ronaldinho, his nomination to fill the void left by David Beckham last summer, not only utterly overshadowed the former Old Trafford hero but put the entire Real Madrid team on to a rack of exquisite torture.

Though sympathising with Fergie isn't perhaps the easiest chore, especially in north London, we really should consider the impact the Brazilian might have had on United's season. Having decided that the Beckham circus had run its course at Old Trafford, that the player's skill no longer justified the excess baggage of disruptive publicity, Ferguson then had a solemn duty not just to compensate for the loss of Beckham but to improve the overall strength of a team that had been found seriously wanting in top-level European competition.

Ferguson, as was his right through past achievement, made his key selection and handed it over to the Old Trafford money men. What happened then was devastating to the manager's hopes for the new season. Barcelona's negotiating team made a late run and seized the prize, a development which did not endear the Old Trafford chief executive, Peter Kenyon, to Ferguson, and indeed may have been a factor in the former's decision to accept the offer of the Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich. Recently, Ferguson said: "I knew we had to make changes before the new season. We had to re-generate some of the younger players and bring some new ones in. Unfortunately, you don't always get who you want - nobody does. It was disappointing not to get Ronaldinho. There was a problem with his brother, who was his agent, but Peter Kenyon didn't get the job done."

This, no doubt, is history - but on Sunday it reared up again and poured half a ton of salt into Ferguson's wounds.

There was Ronaldinho producing a magical ball for Barça's winning goal at the Bernabeu and threatening Beckham with another season without the underpinning of a trophy success. It was a haunting picture for Ferguson so soon after watching the jiggling, dancing euphoria of Arsenal at White Hart Lane. Not only did Ronaldinho remind the football world why Ferguson had identified him as the new moving force of his team, possibly even a talisman to rank with the revered Eric Cantona - a bewitching thought when he considered the Brazilian's vastly greater natural talent - but there was also some fresh and jolting evidence of why the United manager had decided to part with Beckham.

To the horror of the Real Madrid hierarchy - who are appalled at any intrusion into the private lives of their galacticos - someone in Real's advertising department had approved a flashing electronic advert for the scandal sheet Interviu, which proclaimed "David Beckham's Malaysian Adventure - read all about it".

The word in Madrid is that heads will surely roll in the wake of the gaffe, and Ferguson might wryly note that it is the kind of problem that the Spanish club had not encountered before the arrival of Beckham. Nor will he have missed the fact that since Beckham's impressive surge of form before Christmas, his play has tailed off quite shockingly - while Ronaldinho's has been consistently receiving rave reports for the extra dimension he has brought to Barça's play. Though Beckham has become an election issue at Real, insiders say that Beckham's sponsor, the club president, Florentino Perez, is no more likely to lose an election than the ANC in South Africa. However, on both the Ronaldinho and Beckham counts, Ferguson's judgement is at the moment looking rather like the last word in prescience.

One Spanish football aficionado-critic, after noting the almost universally extravagant reaction of his colleagues to Beckham's early showing for Real in central midfield, says: "Ronaldinho's reputation is growing week by week as he reveals quite extraordinary ability to change a match - he does amazing things, he has almost a chewing-gum quality... he can stretch himself to do almost anything he wants. There is not much argument here that he is close to supplanting Zidane as the world's most creative midfield player."

Fuel enough for angst, then, when Fergie poured himself a nightcap Scotch and considered the current state of play. Defeats by Portsmouth and another one by a Liverpool team still so far detached from any sense that they are capable of developing a style of football significant to the outcome of a Premiership title race, can only have deepened his current gloom.

Throw in the enervating business of Roy Keane's decision to further dilute his dwindling powers by returning to the Irish international fold, the lack of impact by summer signings Kleberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba and growing talk of a fresh dawning of the age of Wenger's Arsenal, and it is easy to imagine a night of fitful sleep for the man who has known more concentrated success than any manager in the history of English football.

Still, we know he will fight on and, if he cares to think about it, with a certain sense of vindication. On Sunday night the world could see that on the two biggest decisions of his summer he was absolutely right.

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