James Lawton: Momentum with Ferguson once again as rivals left frozen in his wake
Isn't talk of a stunning United treble pure fantasy? Not with this manager at the helm
Friday 08 April 2011
It is the way it generally is in the fashion of death and taxes, of course, but has there ever been a more bitter harvest in key areas of English football? Almost wherever you look there is a picture of one of the top managers in some degree of torment.
Harry Redknapp contemplates the debris of a brilliant Champions League campaign which splintered in his mind the moment he realised this week that, for all their previous heroics, he had a Spurs team who in several critical cases were unready for their moment of truth in the Bernabeu Stadium.
Arsène Wenger has to wonder how much mileage he has left in his agonising journey to the end of a rainbow.
Carlo Ancelotti's plight might have been frozen for all time on Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge when, perhaps against his better football instincts, he withdrew Didier Drogba while leaving Fernando Torres to the £50m challenge that pushed him, humiliatingly, into a crass piece of cheating.
Drogba accepted Ancelotti's proferred hand when he marched away, but not without shaking his head and delivering the kind of sardonic smile that the Robert De Niro character delivers when some mafia rival has been consigned to the fishes.
Yes, it's true that redemption may just be around the corner for at least two of these embattled managers.
For Ancelotti, the one-goal deficit at Old Trafford next week is not the sharpest hill he has ever had to climb and, who knows? Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere may relight some fires for a Wenger who has never been more questioning about the sources of his confidence.
However, who needs telling where the most powerful momentum now lies, who has too much congenital detestation of the most remarkable manager in the history of English football not to acknowledge that it is once again the property of Sir Alex Ferguson?
The Rooney controversy still reverberates. Critics of Ferguson's one-eyed view of football have never been so clamorous. There is still widespread belief that United's whole season has been something of a triumph for smoke and mirrors.
Yet bookmakers, who tend not to be diverted by such phenomena, have put United virtually out of sight for the Premier League title at 1-5 and yesterday installed them as joint-second favourites with Real Madrid to stop the Barcelona caravan. There was also the evidence of our own eyes in west London this week.
Much praise has already gone to Wayne Rooney, who wore his latest crisis as some kind of weird battle ribbon while producing by some distance the best performance of his season, and Michael Carrick, who displayed some of the vital signs that seemed to have disappeared two years ago in Rome when United's collective will imploded against Barça almost as profoundly as that of Tottenham in Madrid.
Perhaps, though, Rio Ferdinand deserved more than fleeting honourable mentions on a night when United not only ended a nightmare run at Stamford Bridge but also looked, penalty claim aside, much the more balanced and resourceful team.
Ferdinand's sense of hurt over the England captaincy affair won widespread support, perhaps as much for its value as another cudgel with which to pound Fabio Capello. Others thought it remote from the reality of the situation – and somewhat precious.
However, there could be only one polarisation of opinion over his performance against Chelsea. It had to be that Ferdinand's ability to rise above the frailties of his body, and the general assumption that in football terms it might fall apart at any moment, is borderline spooky. Few defenders have ever imparted such a sense of inward serenity and almost extrovert calm. Ferdinand creates an island and when he is at his best, as he was on Tuesday, it is one that pushes back the sea.
When you threw in another example of Ryan Giggs' durability, which was produced so magnificently before he tired in the second half, and the strength and good-heartedness of the returning Antonio Valencia, there was an unavoidable conclusion. It was that Ferguson was again in charge of resources that might just might stretch to a stunning coup.
If he should win either the Champions League or the Premier League it will indeed be a staggering achievement. If he should carry off both, and also pick up the FA Cup like some greedy kid in a sweet shop, we are surely entering the realms of fantasy.
United, it has been an article of faith by all their rivals since last autumn, are represented by maybe the weakest team since Ferguson broke through two decades ago.
They have won games they should have lost by a combination of brutally imposed will and the three-card trick. Sometimes the picture has been so austere it might have been painted by Lowry. Yet if the light wasn't blinding at Stamford Bridge, it was more than sufficient to illuminate the fact that United had never this season shown so much implicit understanding of what they were about.
At the very least, they looked like a more than decent team, which is generally the conclusion when you see someone score a goal as perfectly as the one fashioned by Carrick, Giggs and Rooney.
For United it seemed not so much galvanising as reassuring. They relaxed to a significant degree. They shouldn't do it, they are probably not good enough, but they just might. Creating this possibility is alone a stunning achievement and, however reluctantly we do it, we know where to send the flowers.
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