Delight for Ferguson as United see Keane of old

Community Shield: Champions' manager can take heart from Irishman's tenacious display as new-look midfield makes light of Beckham's absence
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The Independent Football

There were times when the Community Shield might have been a gang prize fought over in one of the toughest sections of the South Bronx.

This seemed particularly so when Arsenal's Francis Jeffers, who is more notorious for diving, stayed on his feet long enough to kick viciously the prone Phil Neville. Inevitably, he received a red card, a fate which might easily have been shared by his team-mate Ashley Cole, who after being booked in less than two minutes for a tackle on Neville, rather luckily escaped punishment for a petulant lunge on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

You may be forgiven for the suspicion that Neville by this time had developed a serious case of persecution mania, but he concealed it well enough in a solid contribution to a Manchester United victory which, though it came finally by the penalty shoot-out, confirmed the moral weight of their Premiership triumph last spring.

In fact, Neville was not exactly angelic in all respects. He went into the referee's book in just 30 seconds for an arresting tackle on, of all targets, Patrick Vieira. But if manners were questionable all round, the psychological value of winning, however it came, was never in much doubt.

The real business starts in six days' time, of course, but neither United's Alex Ferguson nor Arsenal's Arsène Wenger had apparently played down the importance of striking an early blow at the confidence of what they have reason to believe is the only serious opposition in town.

If this was indeed so, and the mayhem strongly suggested that it was so, Ferguson's smile at the end plainly had more cause than an ultimately meaningless triumph.

Ferguson's chief source of delight, we can be sure, was the resurrection, no less, of Roy Keane. Last season's crisis of confidence in the man who for so long embodied the most basic strength of the most successful team in domestic English football history seemed like an old worry indeed long before he joined Rio Ferdinand in the centre of defence after a second half re-jig by Ferguson.

Keane will be reading football games more acutely than most even when he is obliged to use a walking stick, but there was something of the old physical intensity again at the Millennium Stadium yesterday.

One moment above all captured the sense that Keane was indeed operating around optimum levels. It was when he raced back to make a beautifully timed tackle on Vieira, the man for whose signature on a contract Arsenal await as condemned men might a reprieve from the governor.

Keane, obviously, has a limit on his physical powers these days. How long he can operate as the central force of United has to be a matter of concern. But with the Brazilian World Cup winner Kleberson on his way, and the new signing Eric Djemba-Djemba showing a superb appetite for serious work in the middle of the field, Ferguson has reason to believe that the absence of David Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron may indeed prove much less than critical.

For Arsenal the new season is suddenly fraught. Though the delightful skill of Thierry Henry resurfaced for the first time in pre-season, and was celebrated with a beautifully struck free-kick which embarrassed United's new American goalkeeper, Tim Howard, and Robert Pires also showed some of his classic grace notes, there was a sense that this is a team that may have lost more than the title last spring. Certainly their will to perform often seemed less forceful than United's, and if Ferguson played up the victory in his usual aggressive style, Wenger's face spoke of some concern.

Certainly he must once again address the matter of discipline. His failure to impress on his players the folly of petulant reaction to the ebb and flow of a match has already been proven a critical weakness and yesterday he can scarcely have been reassured by Jeffers' lack of discipline - and also the kick Sol Campbell aimed at Djemba-Djemba after the Cameroon player had lunged in with his foot high.

Campbell's kick was scarcely vicious. It was a little reminiscent of Beckham's little gesture in that World Cup game in France - but such actions sometimes have devastating consequences. Campbell, of all people, should be aware of some of them after his disastrous absence from the Arsenal side at the end of last season.

United will be satisfied by this performance if not ecstatic. Apart from Keane, Paul Scholes was most consistently effective. Unquestionably the England man looks to be in the mood to ride last season's glory.

Elsewhere, the work was at times less cohesive. Ruud van Nistelrooy promised thunder but never quite got round to the superb execution of last season, and while Ryan Giggs ran beautifully at times, he lacked conviction in the killing areas around goal.

Still, it was the day when Ferguson, having ridden a torrent of criticism in the wake of Beckham, and to a lesser extent Veron, could conclude that his team were solidly based and full of running.

Wenger will not be too downcast, however. This was, after all, essentially a sparring session. The fact that it got out of hand so quickly at times simply reflected the level of competition between these teams. The rest, including the Plutocrats of Stamford Bridge, still have no reason to believe that their time has come.