Ferguson's old guard fail to revive renowned domination

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The Independent Football

Theatre of dreams, do they say? The truth is that Old Trafford is in growing danger of becoming more than anything a monument to lost glory.

Theatre of dreams, do they say? The truth is that Old Trafford is in growing danger of becoming more than anything a monument to lost glory.

Two weeks ago Manchester United were supposed to have re-stated their right to dispute the outcome of still another English season. It's an exciting idea, the resurrection of a great team but it has to be based on something more than the circumstances of one victory and wishful thinking.

When Arsenal were forced to resort to a fusillade of pizza after losing their unbeaten record here two Sundays ago, United also had a surge of expectation that their match-winner, Wayne Rooney, was the answer to so many problems.

Last night, however, against a Manchester City side so passive they might have been managed by Mahatma Gandhi rather than Kevin Keegan, Rooney spent most of the game on the bench - perhaps the price for recent failures, despite his bewitching talent, to score goals as though he were turning a tap.

Five dropped points in the two Premiership games since the embittering victory of Arsenal is just one stark measurement of Sir Alex Ferguson's desperation in his efforts to consistently reignite his usually expansive team.

Against City there was another piece of disturbing accountancy. It was the number of United players who one day might have taken hold of this game and bent it to their will in a few moments of concentrated venom. At the most conservative count it was three huge figures in the story of Ferguson's United, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane.

Giggs, returning to the team while surrounded by the growing feeling that his best days are history now, had the perfect opportunity to show that United's old guard could still muster the killing authority to stiffen and inspire the latest crop of United youth.

Louis Saha, a £12m investment in the new United, supplied Giggs with a beautifully measured pass that tore apart the City cover and left the Welsh international bearing down on the whites of goalkeeper David James's eyes.

Had Giggs scored, the second-half floodgates would surely have swept open. Instead, Giggs shot a few inches wide. A heart-breakingly fine line between glory and despair? Or cruel evidence that the nerve of a player who has been one of the cornerstones of Ferguson's empire is slipping beyond repair?

As City, sponge-like in their capacity to absorb massive but critically unrefined United pressure, held on for their improbable draw, it was hard not to lean to that second, sombre verdict.

Scholes, who is said to be disenchanted with the game into which he has poured so much of his life, and his superbly competitive nature, did unearth some marvellously intuitive passing which reminded us of the best of his past, and there were a few moments when he threatened to impose himself utterly on the absurdly one-sided action. But in the end we were looking in vain for the best of that old Scholes.

That, of course was the beautifully timed intervention, the late run into the heart of a beaten defence. There were half-a-dozen times when City, despite the prodigious efforts of their captain, Sylvain Distin, at the heart of defence when the old Scholes would surely have delivered a killing sword stroke.

But not last night, not in this game when the old majesty of United was just a memory.

Roy Keane was as professional as ever. Nothing that happened on the field was beyond his calculating eye. But it is one thing seeing what is needed to be done, another doing it in the heat of the action. There was a time when Keane would have almost effortlessly bullied both his opponents and his team-mates into accepting the force of his will. Yesterday he was merely an element, a sound one no doubt, in a team that simply could not raise itself to the required level.

Ferguson, at least as far as he is ever likely to in public, conceded some of the worrying truths of this game. "You're right,'' he agreed with one interrogator, "This wasn't championship form.''

More predictably he complained that the referee, Graham Poll, was never going to accede to a flood of Manchester United penalty demands, most of which seemed to be borne more of desperation than hard conviction.

Ferguson's most disturbing theory, however, was that maybe United's problem is that they are too pre-occupied with the challenge of Europe. Perhaps, he suggested, it is hard for his men to rise to the "mundane'' challenge of a mere derby game against the old enemy from across the city.

That, in the language of Manchester football, was a sacrilege in its self. Certainly, the idea of it prompted Keane to storm angrily out of the company of someone who broached the theory in the build-up to last night's match.

For Ferguson to offer it as an explanation for another crushing disappointment raised the possibility that he is near the bottom of his list of explanations for another season of under-achievement.

The truth, of course, is that a team on the march, one which still believes in its rights to call themselves champions, see no challenge as mundane. It is another opportunity to re-state themselves as performers who are exploring the limits of both their ambition and their ability.

Last night we saw none of that. Indeed, at times we saw the opposite, not least in Alan Smith's regression in his efforts to put disciplinary problems behind him. His dismissal for a gratuitous foul that came out of shear frustration, was more dismal evidence that United are a team far from at peace with themselves.

This was another night when the team that dominated English football for so long had to take a look into the mirror.