James Lawton: Victory over United can buy Villas-Boas time to shape his destiny under ruthless owner

Maybe Abramovich might wonder about the point of buying a brilliant young coach without giving him the chance to grow in the job

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The Independent Football

If things go quite as well as Andre Villas-Boas hopes at Old Trafford tomorrow afternoon we may be seeing rather more than the season's first serious dispute of power. We might, give or take the possible interventions of Manchester City, be seeing battle lines drawn for quite a bit of the rest of the decade.

Certainly a huge amount could depend on the extent of the credibility the 33-year-old Villas-Boas, starting now, can build in the jaws of the latest statement from the oldest and most successful manager in English football.

It is one of withering authority from Sir Alex Ferguson, who while 36 years the Portuguese's senior, might, for all the accumulation of staggering success, still be pounding the streets of ambition for the first time.

A fascinating game has a very good chance of happening but maybe more compelling is the extraordinary juxtaposition of age and youth, the Gibraltar sturdiness of Ferguson's personal situation and the financial complexities and brinkmanship of his owners, and the vulnerability that Villas-Boas, for the moment at least, must share with all his predecessors in the age of Roman Abramovich.

Today may be just a nudge in one direction or another but then one dislodged stone can start an avalanche and, who knows, a moment of resurrection by Fernando Torres, a touch of subtlety from the coach's tattooed and quite often luminous countryman Raul Meireles or another confident strike from Juan Mata and, who knows, Villas-Boas could be on his way in the manner of his mentor Jose Mourinho when he knocked Ferguson out of the 2003-04 Champions League.

Mourinho knew at that moment he arrived with optimum force. His dash along the touchline was a more energetic version of Ferguson's own run with outstretched arms at the Nou Camp five years earlier when he won his first Champions League title.

Quite such a crossing of the Rubicon may not be available to Villas-Boas at Old Trafford tomorrow but what a rebuttal statement victory would be after United's – and City's – dazzling start to the Premier League campaign.

It would say that if his new patron Abramovich was ever going to learn about the realities of football – rather than the mechanics of mere spending power – now would be the time. There is always a chance, of course, that the rouble has already dropped.

Perhaps it happened at the end of last season when United swept Chelsea out of the Champions League and the oligarch looked into the ruins of his disastrous meddling – the crude and destructive firing of Ray Wilkins and the bizarre £50m imposition of a mis-firing, less than mightily fit Torres at a pivotal point of a season Carlo Ancelotti, nobody's fool, was promising a fightback – and wondered, finally, if there might not be another way.

A way, that is, that didn't leave so much casually drawn blood on the managerial floor. A way that gave his new manager, whoever he might be, a vestige of respect, a sense that he might just be in charge of his own ability to shape a winning football team.

Villas-Boas may not yet have set the Fulham Road alight but he might be said to have achieved the most vital work that faced him when he took over from the amiable Ancelotti.

He has stripped down the old certainties of the dressing room and, in effect, said that if he is to go down it will be by his own hand and not some sudden shift of loyalty by stars who some time ago were handed the priority of career survival, rather than some unshakeable place in the future of the club from which they had received so much financial reward for so long.

The young coach has placed his compatriot Meireles in the dressing room for his new eyes and ears, quite apart from his impressive creativity on the field. The coach has already invested plenty of faith in the new man Mata – and been swiftly rewarded. He has challenged Torres' view of the world, imposed the old imperative that says it doesn't matter who you were yesterday, the issue is today – and tomorrow.

You can only do so much at one time. Villas-Boas was plainly delighted by a successful Champions League start against Bayer Leverkusen and its evidence of gathering conviction.

It is tomorrow, though, when he reaches for the prize that helped make the career of Mourinho and, Villas-Boas knows well enough, would give so much momentum to the young coach who used to flutter so eagerly in his shadow.

The greatest hope is that it would be a victory over Ferguson which indeed makes Abramovich think. Maybe he might consider all the waste, and the brutalities of the past, and wonder about the point of buying a brilliant young coach without giving him the guarantee of a little time to grow into the challenge – and build a little of the authority achieved by the man he now faces in one of the great moments of a so far meteoric career.

Yes, it might well be a great match. Better still, it might just be historic.

So that's all right – let's join all the other model professionals at the bar

The number of England rugby union fans who want you to know that not one of their revelling heroes actually picked up a dwarf and threw him during their vital but essentially low-key relaxation from the stresses of the World Cup is barely short of astonishing.

An even greater number are anxious that we understand that, far from provoking questions about their professionalism, even their adulthood, their behaviour in the Altitude Bar in Queenstown, New Zealand, the night after their "hard-fought and passionate" victory over Argentina was nothing less than a stirring example of how men of action properly take a brief respite from the action.

Also highly commended is the swift response of star winger Chris Ashton – he of the fearless, inspiring belly-flop before touching down – to inferences that members of the England team were responsible for incidents so unseemly that they caused outrage among all those who believe that every section of humanity, including those severely limited in stature, should have their dignity respected.

It was not, Ashton said with some exasperation, as though the players took in their own personal dwarf and sat him down on the bar before ordering a flagon of cut-price rocket fuel.

Finally, it is pointed out that, correctly speaking, stand-in captain Mike Tindall, who was pictured sprawling in the bar with Ashton and Dylan Hartley, is not in fact wedded to the royal family. However, judging by his apprehensive expression yesterday this technicality is unlikely to spare him a bracing collision with the daughter of the Princess Royal when she arrives quite soon at the head of a column of rugby Wags.

What so many England fans most want us to know is that there is absolutely nothing unprofessional about late-night drinking in the company of flying dwarves and some attractive young ladies, one of whom could hardly have had her hospitality rejected when she insisted that the captain bury his head in her cleavage.

Just to round off all thisvindication, manager Martin Johnson, who said two weeksago that you do not impose petty disciplines on adult professional sportsmen, says that he would not dream of going against thepopular opinion that his players acquitted themselves, all in all, with outstanding professionalism.

No, there will no censure, no re-drawing of those lines of authority sketched by the Rugby Union's legal chief Jeff Blackett the last time touring England rugby union players put question marks against their understanding of what really is expected of international sportsmen in the second decade of the 21st century. That was three years ago, also in New Zealand.

Thank heavens, then, for all the reassurance that flooded in yesterday. It was nearly enough to make you feel ashamed for doubting that the boys really knew what they were doing, but then perhaps we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves. When, after all, was the last time you shouldered you way past all theworld-beaters queuing up for the midget weekender?