Ferguson's old troops rally round their general

Manchester United 3 Tottenham Hotspur 0
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The Independent Football

In Munich, Turin and Manchester, footballers will wake up feeling something is missing; that they have a plane to catch and should be somewhere else. That the quarter-finals for the Champions' League can take place without Bayern, Juventus and Manchester United appears quite refreshing unless you happen to be at the Olympiastadion, the Stadio delle Alpi or Old Trafford.

Ottmar Hitzfeld, Marcello Lippi and Sir Alex Ferguson would agree on most things in football and when they meet at the next Uefa-sponsored jamboree they might swap stories on how you can still be pursued by furies despite all the silverware you have piled up over the years.

Between them they have appeared in eight European Cup finals but with their teams each badly adrift of their respective league leaders, their talents are daily questioned. Lippi is expected to leave Juventus in the summer, possibly to be succeeded by Didier Deschamps; Hitzfeld is under enormous pressure and may not see out his contract. And Ferguson...?

The Manchester United manager enjoyed a better weekend than the other two, who saw their once imperious squads held by unregarded opposition, but then Ferguson was only up against Tottenham, who since Terry Venables' day have come to Old Trafford on 16 occasions and lost 15 times. Even the goalless draw in 1995 ought to have been a home win since Ferguson reckoned United squandered seven obvious chances in the first half alone.

They missed nearly as many on Saturday. Ruud van Nistelrooy might have had a hat-trick, and although Cristiano Ronaldo and David Bellion only broke through in the final minutes when Tottenham were badly stretched, the scoreline just about reflected the pattern of play.

United now prepare for what Ferguson described as "the two most important games of the season". The opponents are the same, Arsenal, but while the outcome of the first match, Sunday's Premiership encounter at Highbury, is likely to be symbolic, an FA Cup final is at stake at Villa Park on 3 April.

With the exception of Phil Neville at right-back and Diego Forlan at centre-forward, the team Ferguson fielded on Saturday would be the one most United fans would prefer to see against Arsenal.

Napoleon deployed his Old Guard, veterans of Austerlitz and Marengo, for battles he absolutely had to win. The United old guard were at Old Trafford in force: Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, players who have been with him for eight years or more, all ranged across midfield. Maybe Alan Hansen was right, maybe you do win nothing with kids, unless your kids are truly exceptional.

Not one of Ferguson's summer signings, who were all under 24, started. Significantly, United played sharply from the off and the decisive, opening goal, a delicate Giggs backheel from Solskjaer's sublime cross, was vintage stuff.

The Tottenham caretaker manager, David Pleat, thought Ferguson wanted "metaphorically to put up two fingers at the people who have criticised him". This view was confirmed by a glance at his programme notes, which represented a two-page rage against the "people dancing on what they perceive to be our grave".

A comfortable victory over Tottenham and a first clean sheet in the Premiership since 11 January could be portrayed as a riposte, but the game merely confirmed what people already knew; the core of Manchester United's squad is an array of exceptional, if ageing, footballers. Whether Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba or Ronaldo can improve upon them is a very moot point at Old Trafford, although the loss of David Beckham would not have been felt so keenly had Solskjaer been fit throughout the season.

Hansen, whose summing-up of Manchester United has improved since the opening day of the 1995-96 season, stated that Ferguson's next two signings had to make "an immediate impact". Rafael van der Vaart, Ajax's glittering midfielder, is believed to be one of United's principal targets but like Ferguson's recent purchases he is, at 21, still relatively raw.

Curiously, Van der Vaart, like Ronaldinho last summer, has expressed a preference for Barcelona over Manchester, so perhaps this time United's chief executive might actually travel to Amsterdam to speak to his club. The days of buying players by divine right are done.

Goals: Giggs (30) 1-0; Ronaldo (89) 2-0; Bellion (90) 3-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll 6; P Neville 5, Brown 4, Silvestre 5, O'Shea 7; Solskjaer 7 (Ronaldo 5, 74), Keane 8, Scholes 6 (Bellion, 90), Giggs 8; Forlan 5 (Butt, 81), Van Nistelrooy 4. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Fletcher.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Keller 6; Carr 7, Doherty 6, Gardner 5, Taricco 3 (Dalmat 6, h-t); Marney 6 (Redknapp 5, 65), Brown 6, King 5, Ziege 4; Defoe 6 (Kanouté, 79), Keane 6. Substitutes not used: Hirschfeld (gk), Kelly.

Referee: D Gallagher (Oxfordshire) 4.

Bookings: United: Giggs. Tottenham: Carr.

Man of the Match: Giggs.

Attendance: 67,634.

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