James Lawton: Renaissance of Scholes finds instant echo in Larsson's arts

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The Independent Football

As Martin O'Neill, the Aston Villa manager, acknowledged that he was now deep into that hostile terrain where football men even of the highest reputation from time to time are obliged to reinvent a team, and maybe themselves, he also went to the heart of the season's most spectacular reclamation: Manchester United as a force of deep accomplishment and the highest ambition.

First, he conceded that the difference between Villa's sturdy, and ultimately unlucky, fight to stay in the FA Cup on this same ground less than a week earlier, and this often cruel dismissal, was mostly to do with the unstoppable upsurge of brilliance which is always a possibility when you face a side of extraordinary individual talent and good balance.

Then O'Neill picked out the greatest single factor in the renaissance of United. He said: "Scholes has played majestically today, perhaps because he is majestic."

Not even Scholes in his current mode can achieved perfection with every performance, but the fact is that United are most clearly where they are today - still six points ahead of Chelsea and, logic insists, too far ahead of Arsenal to worry about the thrilling re-emergence of some of the best of Arsène Wenger's work - not only because the former England midfielder beat a serious eye problem. He also returned to football with all the best of himself sharpened by, among other things, the sense that he will not have so many more opportunities to be so true to the meaning of his career.

Here he explained all over again that it has been as brilliant as it has been understated and unadorned by anything that was not about doing the job that lay before him, every time he went out on the field.

It is, of course, to shape a football match along classic lines. Park Ji Sung and Michael Carrick scored the early goals, Cristiano Ronaldo ended the match after 35 minutes - and ensured that there would again be substance in another performance that sometimes still flirted too dangerously with the lure of pure cabaret - but it was Scholes' rippling passes and incessant intelligence which stood out so brilliantly from the first exchanges.

If Scholes had to be man of the match because of the sheer volume and quality of his contribution, the expectation of which had no doubt sparked the earlier support for him as anyone's idea of Footballer of the Year from his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, it was not the easiest such selection of the season.

Patrice Evra's progress since he arrived so alarmingly in a Manchester derby match a year ago yesterday has become little short of staggering, Carrick's touch is hitting new levels of assurance and attacking ambition, and Ronaldo, whatever you think of his fripperies, several of which might have resulted in a Villa goal, continues to have moments when he is virtually unplayable.

Yet no one threatened Scholes' status more sublimely than his new team-mate and, when you think about it, soulmate, Henrik Larsson.

In their different ways, Scholes and Larsson inhabit the very best of football achievement. They operate from instinct and passion rather than ego. Their work is as unostentatious as a hair shirt. But consistently it displays the quality of genius. Larsson's movement is so beautifully perceptive - and adroit. Once he required Thomas Sorensen to produce a superlative save. Always, he announced danger and intelligence.

As United close in on their Premiership ambitions, and as they contemplate a currently inspired Arsenal and a revived Thierry Henry next weekend, they are in search of only one lost chord: the rampaging self-belief of Wayne Rooney.

Once again Rooney's talent was logjammed by a critical lack of that old timing, that old power of volcanic eruption. Twice, and perhaps inevitably given the scale of United's superiority in this game, he produced reminders of his brilliance. One raking pass was coated with insight and technical perfection.

One shot, instantly realised, smacked against the Villa bar. But, no, it was the real Rooney and for this we perhaps have to wait a little longer for the good effect that must surely come from playing alongside an ageing but still fully paid up attacking virtuoso.

Not every Ferguson signing has been a master-stroke but the great strength of his unique managerial profile is an ability to put his hand on the catalysts of success when it matters most.

Until now Roy Keane and Eric Cantona have been rivals as his greatest investments as they affected the growth of his team. Now Larsson is a potential entrant into the charmed circle. He won a Champions' League final in Paris for Barcelona last spring, the kind of achievement which Cantona, for all the glory of his domestic performance, never threatened, and already he has shown signs that he might just be able to unlock the crisis of Rooney.

It is a promise of dazzling potential and against his old Celtic manager, O'Neill, it was almost poignantly apparent. "Who knows better than me that Henrik is a great player?" he asked.

Old Trafford is fast embracing the secret that was hidden in the ill-considered kraal of Scottish football for so long.

It may also be about to embrace Ferguson's ultimate achievement. It is to make, like his most famous predecessor, Sir Matt Busby, not one great team but a series of them. That he should be poised to do so around the time of his 65th birthday - long after most leading football men have found themselves sated by the glory and worn out by the pressure - is not the least astonishing aspect of United's season.

Mind you, who would not feel as young as springtime if they had just signed Henrik Larsson to play in the same team as Paul Scholes? Football, surely, has rarely known such a double-strength elixir.

Goals: Park (11) 1-0; Carrick (13) 2-0; Ronaldo (35) 3-0; Agbonlahor (52) 3-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Park (Saha, 65), Scholes, Carrick (O'Shea, 80), Ronaldo; Larsson (Solskjaer, 80), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Giggs.

Aston Villa (4-1-3-2): Sorensen; Mellberg, Cahill, Ridgewell, Bouma (Samuel, h-t); Hughes, (Davis, h-t); Osbourne, McCann, Barry; Agbonlahor, Baros. Substitutes not used:Taylor (gk) Hendrie, Angel.

Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).

Booked: Manchester United Rooney; Aston Villa Barry.

Man of the match: Scholes.

Attendance: 76,073.