The Nick Townsend Column: Ferguson provides a spine for England but Chelsea have the backbone for title

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The Independent Online

It is what could be regarded as Keeping up with the Joses... Mourinho's got his midfield Michael, so Sir Alex Ferguson has to show off his. A bit like parking his new car in the drive, inviting everyone to take a squint as they pass by. Even Carrick's basic price, before add-ons, of £14 million is nearly six times Tottenham's cheque to West Ham two years ago.

Except that you know damned well that the Manchester United manager would have given anything to lay his hands on his rival's conspicuously more powerful German model. And Ferguson would have dearly loved a certain Frenchman with a multi-litre engine, too, as he let slip before Juventus's Patrick Vieira opted for Internazionale.

Both Carrick and Ballack were photographed posing with pristine shirts last week, and there were intriguing subtexts to those images. Carrick's No 16 was a hand-me-down from Roy Keane, while Ballack's No 13 (his number at Bayern Munich) was virtually ripped off the back of Chelsea's William Gallas, who had not turned up for the pre-season tour of the United States.

Yet if that juxtaposition of photographs of the two midfielders achieved one thing, it accentuated the fact that the boys blessed by the Roman Abramovich trust fund are liable to place even more clear blue water between themselves and their rivals this season. United, for one, appear to be merely treading it.

While Ferguson, who has jettisoned Ruud van Nistelrooy, will start the season with only Louis Saha and the teenager Giuseppe Rossi available to accompany Wayne Rooney in an advanced role, Mourinho can boast £30m-worth of Andriy Shevchenko to bolster an already bulging portfolio of players (not to mention the midfielder John Obi Mikel, the subject of a bitter dispute between Chelsea and United).

For Shevchenko and Ballack to assimilate themselves into an already successful squad is problematic enough; for Carrick to be laden with the responsibility that comes with joining a United deficient in depth could scarcely be a more onerous undertaking.

It is debatable whether Ferguson has made the task any easier for him. Carrick wasn't offered that No 16 just because it was going spare, of course. He was offered it specifically in the hope that it just might endow its wearer with the expectation that he is capable of drawing a sword from a stone, downing an army with a few slingshots, or a myriad of other superhuman feats.

Yet not even the Scot at his most persuasivewould pretend that Carrick is a natural successor to the iconic Irishman. The psychological ploy has been to bolster Carrick by handing him that almost mystic piece of clothing, convince him he is worthy of it, and then flatter him with a build-up higher than Sven Goran Eriksson's shoes. "With Michael, we have more imagination [than Keane]," Ferguson says. "He can hit longer passes."

What Ferguson didn't dwell on was what United have not bought in Carrick: namely a tigerish tackler, leaping in to devour opponents, a dynamic force who will take a game, and his team-mates, if necessary, by the scruff of the neck. They have signed a more cerebral player who is more "Butch" (the former Manchester United midfielder and captain Ray Wilkins' epithet) than "Keano". At his best, the Geordie is intuitive and penetrating in his passing, which is no surprise, as he was initially tutored at what they used to call the "West Ham Academy" but which has probably been upgraded to a university by now.

The United manager's judgement over bought-in midfielders does not bode well. Over £28m lavished on the Argentinian Juan Sebastian Veron says it all. The difference is that Carrick is English and experienced in the ways of the Premiership. Both Ferguson and his former No 2, now England coach, Steve McClaren, will anticipate that this move will enhance both his domestic and international performances.

If so, a United trio of a ball-playing defender in Rio Ferdinand, a deep-lying provider in Carrick and a creator and predator in Wayne Rooney could conceivably provide the backbone of future England teams. That if comes heavily italicised, however. At 24, despite his six England caps, Carrick is still a work in progress. He travelled to Germany lauded for his Tottenham performances; it was believed he was a player who offered composure and vision that contrasted with the élan of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. He returned unproven; and probably just thankful that his profile had not been damaged by England's ignominious exit in Gelsenkir-chen, in which he played no part.

It remains questionable whether Ferguson can finish the sculpture of this coltish performer who was selected for one World Cup fixture, the round-of-16 game against Ecuador, in an alien role of holding midfielder, performed adequately, if appearing somewhat intimidated by the responsibility, and then acceded to Owen Hargreaves for the Portugal game. Inevitably, Sir Bobby Charlton has declared faith in his club's sole acquisition thus far this summer. "Michael Carrick is a great player," he says. "Once he has played his first game, I don't think anyone will consider the price we paid."

Perhaps not, if United swiftly recapture the style and success their faithful demand. If they fail to do so, you suspect Carrick will require a broad back inside that celebrated shirt. And McClaren will be left with yet another dilemma to ponder.

O'Neill wary of the 'Deadly' takeover moments

Few in football will not welcome the return of Martin O'Neill, particularly given the circumstances that brought about his departure from Celtic - namely, his wife Geraldine's health. Yet if Friday at Villa Park was all abut the Northern Irishman, there was not a hint that the much-maligned chairman, Doug Ellis, would leave a fine legacy and go quietly, as many followers desire.

I have known O'Neill since his days at Wycombe Wanderers, and we were exchanging pleasantries when Ellis intervened and, apropos of nothing, presumably, other than this observer's above-average height, declared: "He could be our new centre-half."

The new manager raised a smile, but you wondered just what was going through his mind. Most other chairmen would have left their new manager alone with the media to talk football. Ellis insisted on having some input, and it is difficult to imagine a day when he won't, even if, and when, the octogenarian agrees a takeover, despite the hope of the Villa Shareholders' Association and Villa Fans Combined that "the arrival of Martin O'Neill is the signal for the departure of Doug Ellis".

That is far from certain, although in securing a candidate linked with so many other clubs, and of course, England, it was clear Ellis did not have things his own way. "If he's as good at dealing and negotiating with the players as he has been with me - and he's been good, very good - then I'll be delighted," said Ellis.

O'Neill did enjoy one piece of oneupmanship. The Ulsterman was paying tribute to Villa's achievements in the early Eighties, when the club won a League championship and European Cup. Ellis interjected to state that "in those years, of course, seven in the squad came from our youth development [scheme]".

O'Neill let him finish before adding: "Yes, we didn't use that many at Nottingham Forest - when we won the League and two European Cups..." Touché.