Ailing United in need of major surgery

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The Independent Football

There is nothing between the sides. That was Sir Alex Ferguson's mantra before Manchester United prepared to put Chelsea through a test of their credentials as champions. Nothing, that is, except a 20-point gap over the season and a two-goal margin on the night. Unless the United manager is in denial, he knows differently now.

To see Ferguson and his team trudge off before empty stands was to feel the balance of power shifting still further away from Old Trafford. Chelsea's players cavorted in front of their followers, who encapsulated the mood of the evening, and the campaign, with a gloating refrain to the United fans: "We were here when you were good."

It is dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of one match. United's 3-1 defeat was their first at home in the League and does not mean they are in terminal decline. They did, after all, complete a double over Arsenal, while Chelsea under Jose Mourinho have proved worthy successors to an Arsenal outfit that did not lose en route to the title. Nor should it be forgotten that United have an FA Cup final against Arsenal a week on Saturday.

Winning the Cup was not good enough, however, to keep Ron Atkinson in the job before Ferguson replaced him. And it was not United's failings on a single evening that reinforced the sense of their being left behind. The malaise manifested itself against Milan in the Champions' League and in a flat start and finish to the season, prompting critics to question the wisdom of their pre-season tour of the United States.

Worryingly for United, as the spectre of Malcolm Glazer's projected takeover adds to the uncertainty, it is a continuation of a pattern. Last season, Arsenal and Chelsea squeezed them into third place, Europe provided scant consolation and only the unequal FA Cup conquest of Millwall fed United's self-image as the biggest club in the world. To endure one humdrum year looks unfortunate; to have another smacks of deeper problems that only major surgery will rectify.

Therein lies the snag for Ferguson. His first great United side, in the early 1990s, was constructed around the simultaneous blossoming of some exceptional home-grown talents, among them David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. There are no comparable prodigies waiting to burst on the scene. This time, revitalising the squad will cost money, yet Ferguson has been warned that a transfer kitty depleted by the £27m capture of Wayne Rooney will stretch only to a goalkeeper. That would be a good place to start.

Better keepers than Roy Carroll would have struggled to stop the twister from Tiago that brought Chelsea their equaliser to Ruud van Nistelrooy's opener. But when viewed in the context of his other lapses, the failure to move for a ball struck from 33 yards must count against him. It is hard to imagine Petr Cech conceding in such fashion, and that is the standard to which United must aspire, five long years after Peter Schmeichel left.

Carroll was not helped by the inability of his central defenders to close down Tiago. Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown played with the distracted air of players lacking concentration. Ferdinand's display was untimely given his recent "accidental" meeting with the Chelsea and former United chief executive, Peter Kenyon, and his reported demands for £120,000 a week.

Centre-backs often do not peak until their thirties, and it could be United need an older, more dominant figure at the heart of their back line. Someone like John Terry or, dare one say it, Jaap Stam. There has long been talk of Roy Keane dropping back to perform that role. Against Chelsea, rather as Ferdinand found Eidur Gudjohnsen too hot to handle, Keane struggled to keep pace with Frank Lampard. Think back to 1999 and the year of United's treble; Keane, then so inspirational, looks half-paced by comparison today.

There were signs on Tuesday that time is also catching up with Scholes. Darren Fletcher, who twanged the bar at 1-1, showed in last season's FA Cup semi-final defeat of Arsenal that he can impose himself on a game, but he needs to show such authority over a sustained period.

In attack, Ferguson has been unlucky with injuries to Van Nistelrooy, Alan Smith and Louis Saha. Van Nistelrooy scored a trademark goal against Chelsea but is patently still short of fitness.

The players deputed to break from midfield rarely came close enough to the Dutchman, while Rooney, for all his flashes of skill and explosive shooting, was often divorced from the action in Giggs' left-sided role.

With all his forwards fit, Ferguson would surely be reflecting on a better goal tally than 56, around 20 adrift of Arsenal and Chelsea. Nevertheless, it is difficult to resist the feeling that they would get more from Rooney in a more orthodox front-running role.

Next season, according to Ferguson, United can afford to lose no more than three Premiership games if they are to regain the title. They will report back for training on 27 June, providing a three-week build-up to a programme of British friendlies and a four-match Asian tour.

Third place means United face a Champions' League qualifier on 10 August, three days before the Premiership kicks off. The new Old Trafford mantra is that they will hit the ground running. The trick will be to ensure they are not running on empty.

United they fall: Old Trafford's underachievers

Where did it all go wrong this season?

Tim Howard (gk, 26) Error-prone

Roy Carroll (gk, 27) Equally error-prone

Paul Scholes (m, 30) Poor season by his standards

Roy Keane (m, 33) Not the force of old

Kleberson (m, 26) Little presence

Louis Saha (f, 27) Plagued by injury

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (f, 32) Career-threatening injury

Ruud van Nistelrooy (f, 28) Injured and out of touch

Not second rate but third rate

2001/02 - 77 Pts - 3rd (10 points off the top)

2002/03 - 83 Pts - 1st

2003/04 - 75 Pts - 3rd (15 points off first place)

2004/05 - 74* Pts - 3rd (20 points off first place)

(*still one game to play)