Fergie bruised by Wenger's calm authority

The barren knight: United manager must ensure that Arsenal counterpart's boast of a shift in power is an idle one
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The Independent Football

Maybe the end of empire theorists were right after all. Arsène Wenger noted the possibility straight away as Arsenal completed their assault on the record books in the most appropriate place for revision. A shift of power, Wenger called it. The phrase must have thudded on to Sir Alex Ferguson's breakfast table the following morning, causing panic in all domestic pets in the neighbourhood and a further colouring of the air. The gall of it. Or should that be the Gaul of it. Wenger has a sharp eye for a fault line. Winning the championship in the home of the habitual champions will bring more satisfaction than he was willing to show on Wednesday night. But the Frenchman, no less proud or obsessive as his opposite number, will enjoy few sweeter moments in his career.

Almost any manager in Europe would like to be bequeathed the crisis of a Champions' League finish in domestic competition and a semi-final place in the major European tournament, which is United's legacy at the end of a turbulent season. But Peter Kenyon, the chief executive, felt the sense of unease keenly enough to issue a calming statement to fans and shareholders on the eve of the championship decider against Arsenal. "Don't panic" screamed the headline in the Manchester Evening News. "I just want to send the message that this is not about wholesale change," said Kenyon. He pointed out that eight players had been secured on long-term contracts. By the end of last week, David Beckham had become the ninth.

Kenyon, though, must have been as troubled as those heading early for the exits by the calm assurance of Arsenal's superiority. United tried to play football, then resorted to intimidation, their failure on both counts inducing a desperation rarely viewed in these quarters. United fans suddenly felt like all the others in the League, buffeted and bruised by forces beyond their control.

Arsenal, with average home crowds almost half those of United, are not competing on equal terms off the field. The club ranks seventh in the league for attendances, behind United, Newcastle, Sunderland, Liverpool, Leeds and Chelsea. The new 60,000-seater stadium at Ashburton Grove will substantially lift the financial profile. Add to that the attraction for overseas players of living in London, for a manager who does not need asterisks to express himself, and Wenger's shift of power might be less temporary than United would care to admit.

Lee Dixon, a veteran of double campaigns, talked of an unparalleled depth in the current Arsenal squad, a trend initially set by United. In winning at Old Trafford, Arsenal did only what West Ham, Chelsea, Liverpool, Middlesbrough and Bolton had done before them this season. But the manner of Arsenal's victory, steely at first, then precise and calculating with the mere hint of exhibitionism, exposed other blocked arteries in the body United.

One picture of misery will suffice to highlight the Juan Veron problem. Presented with the simple – and frustratingly rare – opportunity to deliver a telling cross into Arsenal's heartlands, the Argentine miscued so awfully that the ball ballooned like a hacker's slice into the stands behind the goal. Veron turned, his limp suddenly more pronounced, and searched the bench for signs of sympathy or, at least, of reprieve. Neither was forthcoming. Even the Old Trafford crowd, who have remained stubbornly loyal to their £28m misfit, gasped their dismay.

It is quite possible, whatever Ferguson says, that Veron's hobbling departure midway through the second half will be the end of the experiment with a fusion of footballing cultures. No theory has been more roundly punctured in recent weeks than the one which suggested that United do not miss Beckham. With Ryan Giggs foraging vainly in the centre and Veron equally drawn into midfield firefighting, United lacked the width to test the brick buttress built by Martin Keown and Sol Campbell, the latter the only viable competitor for the man of the match honours rightly awarded to the indefatigable Ray Parlour.

Tell me the last player to outrun and outfight Roy Keane at Old Trafford? Towards the close on Wednesday, even Keane had talked himself into a sullen silence. Given the chance to break in the second half, one last chance to mount a United rescue, the captain could be found wandering out of defence alongside Laurent Blanc and Wes Brown. Nothing typified the lost cause more clearly than Keane's sudden and unexpected acceptance of the facts. At times this season, Keane must have felt like a horse pulling a plough. His knees cannot take much more and nor, it seems, can his mind.

His stinging attack on his colleagues' commitment last week only echoed his comments after a particularly passive United display against Panathinaikos in the Champions' League 18 months ago. How long can you sing the same refrain? There was just a hint that Keane's influence is on the wane. He certainly needs help in the engine room. Mark van Bommel, lined up by Arsenal as a replacement for Patrick Vieira but a former team-mate of Ruud van Nistelrooy's at PSV Eindhoven, would be a potential candidate.

A high-class defender is a more pressing priority, the most persistent rumours centring on Roberto Ayala of Valencia and Alessandro Nesta at Lazio. Both would come with reservations; Ayala, who was desperately exposed at Milan, now looks good in a defensively minded side; Nesta might find the process of adapting from Serie A to the Premier League as taxing as Veron. United do not have time on their side, for once. Signs of weakness early next season would further undermine Ferguson's decision to stay in office, a judgement roundly applauded at the time, but not so benevolently viewed four months on.

Yet exaggerating United's ills would be as misguided as denying them. In the age of Bosman and the quick fix, maintaining continuity is a delicate art, as Wenger knows well. If Vieira is Madrid bound, Arsenal will have a Keane-sized hole to fill. "Players like Patrick have made the club their own," says Dixon. What the majority felt at Old Trafford was a thundering old rivalry given sharp new meaning by the antagonism of the two managers and the reality of football's new economy. If Liverpool v United is a matter of history, geography and tribe, Arsenal v United is a clash of modern feudal warlords. Tord Grip, Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant, said he had never witnessed a Premier League match of such intensity.

Reminded by a journalist that the last time Arsenal won the Double, United trumped it with a Treble the following season, Wenger smiled. "Don't scare me," he said. But it was the smile of a man who has the aces in his hand, for the moment.

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