James Lawton: Forget all the talk about the theatre of dwindling dreams

What a welcome back for Newcastle, to the second division of the Premier League. It was the same message, if not quite as brutally delivered in the opening pleasantries as the one that Chelsea handed to West Bromwich two days earlier, but for a wider audience the meaning was about as equivocal as a perfectly delivered one-two combination.

United may still be afflicted by civil war waged from the terraces, and Wayne Rooney spent another phase of a suddenly besieged career striving unsuccessfully to score his first goal since last March, but the idea that anyone has a more realistic chance of dislodging the champions was rendered somewhat bizarre soon enough.

First Dimitar Berbatov then Darren Fletcher delivered formal notices of another season of serious intent and by the time Rooney was replaced by the young Mexican torero of the penalty area, Javier Hernandez, United's low-key role in the summer market seemed less like hard times than a proper understanding of available resources.

Against this level of opposition, good-hearted though it was in an opening burst which saw Andy Carroll squander a free header when he climbed up to meet a corner from Joey Barton, United had both talent and aggression to burn. From time to time they turned it on Newcastle with withering effect, and no one did this more persistently than Paul Scholes.

In his mid-thirties, he explained all over again why Sir Alex Ferguson is so reluctant to consign him to the past and why Fabio Capello had so much reason to regret his failure to talk him into a role that might just have made England's World Cup something less of a misadventure.

Scholes certainly made a massive contribution to United's swift reassurance to their fans that they were indeed in position to stay on the heels and maybe even supplant the champions they got the better of so impressively at Wembley in the Community Shield.

These are the earliest days and the merest of hints, of course, but some of them were seriously persuasive.

But if Scholes applied vital influence in the crucial middle phase of the game, there was no shortage of evidence that United come into the new season with some players plainly hell-bent on some serious reconstruction of wilting reputations.

No one occupies this category more ferociously, of course, than Rooney and though frustration was etched into every corner of his face when he was replaced by Hernandez, it was still true that there were moments when he seemed just an inch or two away from some extraordinary release. For Berbatov, a man locked into an even longer nightmare at the dawn of his season, knew some sweet deliverance at Wembley.

Last night he scored one goal of fine conviction and promised a handful more before Ryan Giggs came on to deepen still more the sense of well-being that was now firmly embedded at Old Trafford.

Ferguson swore that Berbatov would one day justify the vast faith he provoked in that desperate swoop on White Hart Lane when he was seen as the final piece in a devastating machine. He has much more to do before beginning to justify such a projection but last night it seemed reasonable to presume that we had the beginnings of some new weighty self-belief.

United, as a team, also have much work to do to reclaim the high ground they surrendered to Chelsea last spring, but here they made a start that was filled with a sense of regained ambition. True authority may take a little longer to acquire, but there was a powerful sense that Old Trafford is not necessarily a place of dwindling dreams. An old one came roaring back to life.


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