James Lawton: Scholes returns to offer reminder of classic vintage

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Manchester United are supposed to be reinventing themselves as one of Europe's most exciting teams, but you don't win the Champions' League - or anything else - unless your defensive lines are secure. For United this so often depends on which planet Rio Ferdinand is occupying at the time and unfortunately last night he was star-trekking again.

It meant that once again United's Sir Alex Ferguson owed a huge debt to the player whose feet invariably are closest to the ground - Paul Scholes.

Scholes provided the edge and the experience to carry United through a needless crisis. He also suggested, once again, that he remains England's most naturally penetrative midfielder.

Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink sounds as though he should be the hero of an epic poem but that status - and elevation to cult status at Parkhead alongside men like Jimmy "Jinky" Johnstone and Bertie Auld - will have to wait for something more enduring than his achievement last night.

Certainly it was enough to send new belief coursing through a Celtic team which seemed to be threatened by something close to the annihilation feared by observers of a young and porous defence.

But then one of European football's less exclusive clubs is the one you get to join after taking advantage of a lapse in concentration by Ferdinand. The Dutchman could hardly have believed his luck when Ferdinand allowed him unchallenged passage into the penalty area and the simple chore of guiding the ball past Edwin van der Sar.

That rudely interfered with the idea - not discouraged by Ferguson, the old warhorse with a frisky sense of new horizons opening up - that Celtic had come down to England not for the kind of glory that came when they beat the Leeds United of Giles and Bremner 36 years ago on the way to their second European Cup final but systematic dismantling.

The return of Wayne Rooney and Scholes to a side which for the first time had caught Jose Mourinho's Chelsea lingering on the blocks made such a fate seem inevitable, and the early portents were encouraging before Vennegoor shook Ferdinand from his coma. But if United are indeed on the march, some of their drills are still unlikely to daunt some of Europe's sleeker attacking units. United were also leaden when Wes Brown fouled Jiri Jarosik and Shunsuke Nakamura left Van der Sar rooted to the line with his free kick. That put Celtic level after United had pushed on after profiting from the generosity of leading referee Michel Lubos of Slovakia, who pointed to the spot after Ryan Giggs had been brushed so lightly by Artur Boruc the goalkeeper might have been a valet brushing a speck of dust from his boss's sleeve.

Nakamura's strike only underlined the growing sense that Ferguson's simmering old animus with his former player and Celtic manager Gordon Strachan might not meet with some delayed but still spectacular gratification. Indeed embarrassment seemed a possible outcome in this early going, but then sometimes past investments come to the aid of an embattled football man.

Last night for Ferguson this was most beautifully confirmed not in the scamperings of Rooney, some of which were naturally and utterly riveting, but for the man who cost him not even a fraction of the wunderkind's £26m. Scholes, who left the England squad at least partly because of terminal exasperation with the midfield tinkerings of Sven Goran Eriksson, kept United together as a coherent attacking unit at the most vital point of the game - just when Celtic had reason to believe they might, against all predictions, achieve something more than just respectability.

Scholes placed himself at the back of midfield and in terms of winning attention he was perhaps less eye-catching than the wide players Giggs and Darren Fletcher, in the early going but then when Celtic's belief began to touch optimum levels Scholes showed what it is to play midfield - really play as a creative force that is.

Twice he delivered a killing through ball to Louis Saha and twice goals were inevitable. It was a clinical touch that made a huge difference between the teams until, with 14 minutes to go, Ferguson decided to withdraw Scholes in favour of the extra defensive security provided by John O'Shea.

Scholes left to thunderous applause, as he well deserved. This is a player who pushes back the years with a simple imperative, to apply the kind of midfield skills that are becoming increasingly scarce in home-grown Englishmen. This was supposed to be a largely Scottish affair, but Scholes changed all that. He showed that this game's most committed heart and analytical brain was shaped just a few miles down the road.