James Lawton: Full of confidence and set to pounce, United they stand

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The Independent Online

The Champions are dead, long live Chelsea. Yes, this is the logic of Arsenal's collapse for a second raw and ugly time before the superior will of Manchester United and some bookmakers are already paying out on the triumph of Jose Mourinho's relentless squad.

The Champions are dead, long live Chelsea. Yes, this is the logic of Arsenal's collapse for a second raw and ugly time before the superior will of Manchester United and some bookmakers are already paying out on the triumph of Jose Mourinho's relentless squad.

But some people never learn. They were paying out on Arsenal two years ago. They forgot that football can be as unchartable as a gust of wind. Most negligently, they forgot about Sir Alex Ferguson's incapacity to accept there are times when he and his team should settle for being second best.

That indeed may prove to be their fate this season but the smarter bookies will surely hang on to their money for a little while yet. One thing is certain now. If Chelsea do stumble, if a driving force like Frank Lampard or the anchor John Terry should be injured, if some passing conspiracies of fate trigger an ambush or two, they will not have to look around to see who is at their shoulder. After the moral slaughter of Arsenal at Highbury this week it will surely be Manchester United.

That's right: moral slaughter. The reigning champions, who so recently brought such delight to the hearts of all football lovers with the subtle brilliance of their play, were not merely beaten again by their most bitter rivals. They were taken apart at every level; physically, psychologically and, in the end, creatively.

And why? Because United, unlike Arsenal, were true to the best of themselves. In every sense they were more honest, and this was because they went back to the roots of their success. The journey was supervised by Roy Keane. On the field he launched United into the lead when he stripped Robert Pires of the ball; it wasn't so much a tackle as a sea change. Off the field, in the tunnel before the first kick, he told Patrick Vieira to stop intimidating Gary Neville. If he wanted a little action, why not step in his direction?

Keane may not be a paragon of all the football virtues, but even in the wildest of his times his competitive will has never been in question. This week, though clearly unable to marshall all of his old powers, from first to last, he stood up and said that, more important even than the three points which might just breathe life back into the title challenge was a restatement of the old hunger, the belief that winning was not so much a goal as a right.

In the process Keane's United buried the rancid controversies born of that first gut-wrenching gang-up on Ruud van Nistelrooy and the descent into Pizzagate. The antipathy which came so close to boiling up in the tunnel at Highbury this week, and which seethed through Tuesday night's action right up the point of United taking hold of the game, will no doubt linger on in the minds of the participants, but only one of the teams can benefit from such reminiscence.

United can look back and say that they met a test that had been building relentlessly over the weeks. Whatever lead Chelsea achieved, however much their rivalry with Arsenal was marginalised by the march of the new force in English football, there was always a huge need for United to do serious business at Highbury. United did it because they had the wit and the strength of mind to play their own game.

It was stronger than anything Arsenal could produce and it was unscarred by the outrages of a Vieira, who plainly tried to provoke the sending off of Wayne Rooney, or an Ashley Cole, who in the first minutes of a game clouded by such fervently stored resentment, dived into the box quite shamelessly. What all this will mean when Chelsea visit Old Trafford in the Premiership will now be the subject of much speculation.

In all of it, certain truths will surely remain undisturbed. Ryan Giggs continues to devour the last of a wine that has all of its old body and life. Keane can still rally himself to meet significant moments of truth. Cristiano Ronaldo may well be on the point of outgrowing the more serious vanities and affectations of youth. Rooney, while apparently in the middle of football's equivalent of a furniture-smashing nervous breakdown, can still further advance the case that he is a young footballer of genius.

Given the state of play at the top of the Premiership, it is quite likely that none of this will translate into one of the greatest comebacks in the history of football. Ferguson knew this as well as anybody when he stood so proudly at the Highbury touchline when the final whistle was blown. What he was celebrating was not the possibilities of the future but the reality of that moment. It was that he had a team filled again with both hunger and self-belief.

For Jose Mourinho this might be a little worry. For Arsène Wenger it was cause only for despair.

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