James Lawton: Ferguson's use of his reserves sends powerful message that United will emerge triumphant
Saturday 07 May 2011
There are few guarantees at Old Trafford tomorrow when the Premier League waits to be claimed by one of the two best teams in England.
However, it should be immensely encouraging to the embattled, marginalised, and even the sometimes patronised Carlo Ancelotti that he owns one of them.
It lies in the superior potential for destruction invested in a Didier Drogba playing in the right place, the right formation and with an optimum level of the confidence that came from the status that was stripped from him by the arrival at Stamford Bridge of Fernando Torres in January.
We are not just talking a single selection issue here. We are touching the basic reason why Chelsea's record, for all the resources heaped upon by them by Roman Abramovich, is so sporadic when compared to the relentless accumulation of United success.
We are discussing what happens when one manager is given the brief that has always been a pre-condition of the ability to do the job – and a whole series of them know they are obliged to live from result to result, mood-swing to mood-swing, without ever having the authority that long-term breeds both respect in the dressing room and cohesion and certainty on the field.
In the first category read Ferguson; in the second, Ranieri, Mourinho, yes eventually even Mourinho, Grant, Scolari and Ancelotti.
Yet Ancelotti, who was yesterday denying that a trip to Italy had anything to do with concluding a move to Roma, has one shining opportunity tomorrow to create a glorious interlude in his Chelsea purgatory. He can take a page from the battle-stained book of the Spanish Civil War heroine La Pasionaria, who declared: "Comrades, it is better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees."
For Ancelotti this may simply require him to stick to the formation he finished with on the recent night when United expelled Chelsea from Europe – a task which suddenly became more hazardous when Drogba appeared in place of Torres and scored with trademarked pace and aggressive instinct.
Ancelotti won a superb Double at the first attempt last season with Drogba operating in a system in which all his power and a willingness to run prodigiously was first employed so effectively by Jose Mourinho, before the arrival of Torres' precursor, Andrei Shevchenko. This year the Chelsea manager was building from the ruins which came with the morale-sapping dismissal of his assistant Ray Wilkins when the Spanish striker came down in his parachute and, for all intents and purposes, might have landed on a high ledge somewhere along the Fulham Road.
So now Ancelotti has to re-exert his football values – for what has he to lose but the perceived role of someone for the executive office to kick around? – and with the force that has proved most reliable in his brief tenure, one that so quixotically might now yield two Premier League titles and an FA Cup win.
What kind of legacy would this be from a man treated at times with barely concealed scorn? It would be a stunning one by any measurement.
Only this week Arsenal's youth director and former star Liam Brady, who knows a little of European football after his distinguished stints at Juventus, Sampdoria and Internazionale, was saying that even if the Premier League has rarely touched the heights this season it has come to represent, outside of Barcelona, a tougher challenge than the Champions League.
But then if you have to believe that Ancelotti has one main chance, one shot at a thrilling redemption, the balance of probability still rests with Ferguson.
Why? Because of the way United are, the way they have been bred to be. They were poor against Arsenal last Sunday but when Ferguson sent in the back-up men against Schalke on Wednesday he was making a statement of supreme confidence. The German team may have been wretched in the first leg, but they had erupted in the home of the reigning champions Inter in the previous round. Ferguson said that he had the means to negotiate comfortably the problem – and keep key troops fresh for tomorrow's action.
It was a flexing of the psychological muscles permitted a man encouraged to believe that he is in charge of all he surveys.
That there is likely to be a trickle-down effect in the United dressing room seems like a reasonable presumption. Yes, we know about the commitment of Frank Lampard and John Terry and that not so long ago Florent Malouda was looking like one of the most potent threats in European football. We know of the power of Michael Essien and the swagger of the new man David Luiz.
Chelsea may be wearing thin at certain joints but unquestionably they retain the ability to produce football of both power and invention. It was not so visible against Tottenham last weekend, but then nor was United's penchant for reinventing themselves in the middle of a rank performance at the Emirates.
Where it leaves us is pondering the eddies of form and nerve and the capacity of players like Drogba, Wayne Rooney and the young Mexican firecracker Javier Hernandez to inflict themselves on the most important game of the season.
It is impossible to believe that it will be anything but close, and clammily so, but in the end you have to go with an instinct, a sense of which fighter has most reason to believe in himself and the ultimate capacity to see off the other man.
When you look at it this way, United, contemplating another European Cup final after banishing Chelsea along the way, seem to have the edge. Their greatest concern is surely Didier Drogba and it is something Ancelotti is unlikely to forget when he writes down his team.
For at least one day he has to share the terrain of Ferguson. He has to be his own man.
Memories of Seve's thrilling genius lighten sad tidings
The news from Spain is so bad it is guaranteed to darken the sunniest spring day.
Seve Ballesteros's family is indicating that the great man may be losing his battle against cancer and that his condition has deteriorated sharply in recent weeks. The sadness can only be intensified by the gallantry of his fight for life.
The strength of his resistance has been especially moving in that it started at a time when he was already mourning the loss of his ability to swing a golf club in a way that was uniquely thrilling. No one, not even Tiger Woods, ever played golf as exhilaratingly as this passionate man who learned the game at night on a deserted course and a moonlit beach.
Once, when the onset of his decline had become apparent at a major tournament, someone had the temerity to suggest that maybe he might profit by a break from the game. His reward – and I can vouch for this because it was me – was a look so indignant, so withering, it will never be erased.
"Do you think I can no longer play golf?" he demanded to know. It was as though his very existence had been challenged.
Now that it has, in the most profound way, it perhaps should be no surprise that he has fought so bravely. As he continues to do so, we can only recall all those times he made golf such a glorious expression of his life. In his hands, a golf club was not so much an instrument of play but the most astonishing magic.
A rival once sneered that he was "the car park" champion, someone required to fire his shots from the most improbable places. Yet what shots, what bravura. There was no greater thrill in all of sport than to see Ballesteros coming over the brow of a fairway with fresh alchemy on his mind.
It was a privilege bestowed by one of those sportsmen who you knew was, whatever the vagaries of life, already immortal.
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