Ferguson: Ronaldo benefits from bold play and old heads

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When Manchester United come to town, every home supporter walks towards the ground with an extra spring in his or her step. There may be a certain apprehension there too, from fans who know this is a fixture that rarely brings maximum points. Yet what a day to remember when it does. And even if the game is lost, they are likely to have seen skilful opposing players sent out with a bold, attacking approach rather than packing the midfield and hoping for a lucky break.

The Emirates has endured plenty of the latter approach in its short history, suffering additional frustration when negative tactics have allowed the visitors to sneak away with a draw. So even if it goes against the grain for serious rivals, Ars-enal should welcome Sir Alex Ferguson's side on their first visit to the new ground today.

They arrive not only as Premiership leaders, but as the scorers of no fewer than 52 goals, including 14 in the five matches since suffering unexpected (and undeserved) defeat at West Ham on 17 December. To the manager's delight, those goals have been spread throughout the squad, as he admits that in seasons past the team were too dependent on Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The Dutchman's move to Real Madrid last summer, without a replacement being signed, persuaded many observers to question how the scoring void would be filled and how, therefore, United would mount any sort of challenge to Chelsea. The most convincing answer has come from a surprising quarter. Cristiano Ronaldo began the season as the most unpopular footballer in the country, supposedly at loggerheads with Wayne Rooney in the aftermath of the latter's red card in England's World Cup defeat by Portugal. Booed for every touch on every ground he has played at, the Portuguese has demonstrated strength of character to match his quixotic skills, emerging from a highly competitive field as United's outstanding performer of this campaign. Indeed, he has just become the first man since Ars-enal's Dennis Bergkamp to win the Barclays Player of the Month trophy twice in succession.

No need to emphasise to Ronaldo that United prefer attacking to defending. That is his every inclination, as they spotted when first coming up against him in a pre-season friendly against Sporting Lisbon, after which senior players urged Ferguson to sign him. Taking a leaf from Arsène Wenger's book, Ferguson did the deal for a raw youngster, optimistic that daily coaching at Carrington would knock him into shape without destroying that natural talent. The senior players have played their part too, whether in the constant verbals from shop steward and captain Gary Neville further down the touchline, or the quieter example of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.

It was the latter trio that Ferguson chose to praise ahead of today's game, emphasising their status in the dressing room as an important influence on younger kids on the block such as Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. "I think they create the spirit of the club because of longevity and their loyalty," he said. "There are a lot of players who, when they come to the club for the first time, maybe see Giggs', Scholes' and Neville's names in the teams over the years but don't realise that they have been here since they were kids, 13 years old. They are now in their thirties and that is almost 20 years at the club.

"It is amazing, absolutely fantastic and I don't think there are many clubs that can do that. They [Rooney and Ronaldo] have come young enough to spend a long time with us and I think when they see Giggs and Neville and Scholes and how contented they are it gives them the confidence they are at the right place."

If there has been one disappointment this season - apart from the home defeat by Arsenal - it has been Rooney's recent form. Henrik Larsson's signing, Louis Saha's growing maturity and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's irrepressibility have given Ferguson an opportunity to rest him, which has not so far been taken. It is worth pointing out that the last time there was such a hoo-hah about Rooney being unable to buy a goal, a few months ago, he responded with two in the first quarter of an hour at Bolton and finished with a superbly taken hat-trick. Oddly, however, his eight goals this season have tended to come in clusters, decorating only four different matches. Arsenal, be warned.

Happy to wait until the summer for any further transfer activity - the Owen Hargreaves move apart - Ferguson has much else to be delighted with, including events at Stamford Bridge. "I said at the start of this season that this team has to win, every team at United has to win and we are doing that this year. Certainly there are good signs and we have a good strong squad, which I think is getting better in terms of experience and confidence. Winning does that. There are good signs about the team, good energy, good speed. There are good ages in the team, good ability, and I have no fears about looking ahead with them."

Nor of looking even further than that, in search of a new generation of Nevilles and Giggses. "We've got 87 scouts out there searching for kids and they are there on Saturday mornings out in the pouring rain and freezing cold looking. When they get the boy to the club, what is the point if the manager doesn't believe in playing young players? In our academy, when you see all these photographs up on the wall of Giggs and Scholes and all the others, it is done for a reason."

In contradiction of the notion that it is impossible to teach an old football manager new tricks, Ferguson is learning French. Not, he insists, to communicate better with Wenger; their discourse this afternoon is likely to be perfunctory, perhaps even Anglo-Saxon. The two teams, in their different ways, should be more fluent altogether.

Midfield Magician: Anatomy of United's Paul Scholes

Mind

Sharp and bright, but one of the most down-to-earth and self-effacing of all Premiership players, Paul Scholes likes nothing better once a day's training is done than to go home to his family.

Vision

In the literal sense, a serious eye problem caused Scholes to miss the second half of last season. Once he recovered, he displayed all his old imagination in his reading of a game and his passing.

Heart

Enthusiasm and a big heart have helped keep Scholes in the engine room of a leading team for 13 years, winning six Premiership titles, though he decided to give up international football to prolong his club career.

Tackling

Every Scholes tackle is a reminder that he began as a striker, not a ball-winner. Reckless challenges have led to the occasional red card, including one for England against Sweden in 1999.

Shooting

A strong point, as his magnificent volley at Aston Villa before Christmas emphasised. But Scholes knows he ought to score more goals (five so far this season) in such an attacking side.

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