Ferguson's warriors give stirring show of authentic quality

Manchester United 5 - Crystal Palace 2
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The Independent Football

If Sir Alex Ferguson had been any cheerier, he might have cried, "Ho, ho, ho," a circumstance so bizarre it would have justified a skywards peek for the sight of Dancer and Prancer flying in the direction of Trafford Park. Analysis a little nearer the ground, however, provided the best explanation for the United manager's uplift.

If Sir Alex Ferguson had been any cheerier, he might have cried, "Ho, ho, ho," a circumstance so bizarre it would have justified a skywards peek for the sight of Dancer and Prancer flying in the direction of Trafford Park. Analysis a little nearer the ground, however, provided the best explanation for the United manager's uplift.

Though his team still trailed Chelsea by nine points, and the news of Ruud van Nistelrooy was grim - a possible six-week lay-off with Achilles trouble - Ferguson was plainly overwhelmed not by seasonal warmth but pure relief.

It went a little deeper, too, than the mere pleasure of seeing more familiar performances from three of his key warriors - Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane - in this ultimate ransacking of a Palace team which even in defeat manages to convey a sense of defiant self-belief rare among the Premiership's disadvantaged.

Individual form comes and goes, of course, and that plainly wasn't Ferguson's preoccupation after the deeply frustrating failure to close ground on Chelsea in the tepid performance earlier in the week against Fulham.

No, what he needed most - and he made it clear enough in his essay to the faithful in the match programme - was some evidence he wasn't entirely kidding himself that some of the old confidence was resurfacing at Old Trafford.

Said Ferguson: "There is a confidence in the team again which I have got to say gives me great hope for the second half of the season. I am long enough in the tooth in management to be able to almost smell the confidence, and the sense of purpose and quiet expectation that comes with it, around the training ground. It's back."

Maybe, maybe not. For a truer verdict we will have to await the Premiership new year and that colossal collision with Milan, but in the meantime there is no hardship in celebrating the available evidence that, even without Van Nistelrooy, United do indeed have the potential for a more significant presence around the top of the league. Palace's feisty pretensions were engaging and admirable, but long before the end they had been consumed by that United quality which Ferguson has found so elusive for so long.

Any blow Palace landed - and there were more than a few outside of the splendidly taken goals of Danny Granville and Joonas Kolkka - created not doubt in United but a deep sense of outrage. This, amid the smoke and thunder - and some considerable defensive laxity - was the real mark of United's progress.

Most stirring of all was the grandeur of Giggs's running in his 600th game for the club. He ran at Palace with a disdain for all attempts to block his progress. It was the authentic Giggs, assured, uncomplicated, running like a gust of wind. Once, having turned the Palace defence inside out, he looked up from his work and at the great sweep of the arena he has graced for 14 years. His expression seemed to challenge even a whisper that it might just be time for him to go.

Scholes and Keane could also be identified without a sliver of doubt as Scholes and Keane.

Much homage, inevitably, was paid to the visiting Eric Cantona, so generously girthed now he would struggle to get through a Selhurst Park turnstile let alone leap on to its terracing with vengeance in his eye, but you had to hope that on that future day when any of Scholes, Keane and Giggs returned to their old battleground, the reception would be no less welcoming. Cantona unquestionably was a catalyst of Ferguson's United but, in the biggest challenges faced by the club, he was never what these three have been for so long: he was never the conscience and the competitive heart of Manchester United.

This, at a time of great psychological need, was the reminder the trio gave us with consistent force after Ferguson's brow knotted in concern when Wayne Rooney, the magical but still deeply erratic Rooney, carelessly slapped an early penalty into the reach of Palace's often inspired goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly. Scholes'two goals subdued outbreaks of Palace's resistance and his running was never less than acute; playing in his proper position, not stranded on the left, he restated all over again the loss he represents to misfiring England.

Keane will never again take hold of a match, put it into his pocket and then dare anyone to try to retrieve it. However, here he was again a major influence, insistent, sharp with the ball and ferociously attentive off it. It will be fascinating to see him duel with the Milan midfield of Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso, a bit like seeing an ageing Roberto Duran come into the ring against the hugely favoured Marvin Hagler and take him all the way.

Given this level of leadership, Ferguson must now hope for a certain concentration in the mind of Rooney, and also those of Rio Ferdinand, Mikaël Silvestre and Gary Neville, who unaccountably left Kolkka unchallenged when he headed Palace's second equaliser.

For Palace it was a seventh game without victory and Iain Dowie's expression in the technical area was suitably mournful.

However, his fans sang defiantly that there was only one of him, and you could understand their affection. United, for whom Alan Smith continues to display a Keane-like commitment, would have blown away most opposition this day. It was to Dowie's credit that his team, having elected to play seriously, kept doing it well after all hope had gone.

Ferguson made a point of paying similar tribute. Then he went home. Possibly by reindeer.

Goals: Scholes (22) 1-0; Granville (27) 1-1; Smith (35) 2-1; Kolkka (46) 2-2; Boyce og (48) 3-2; Scholes (49) 4-2; O'Shea (90) 5-2.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Fortune (O'Shea, 31); Fletcher, Scholes, Keane, Giggs; Smith, Rooney. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), P Neville, Bellion, Miller.

Crystal Palace (4-5-1): Kiraly; Boyce, Hall, Sorondo, Granville; Routledge (Andrews, 80), Hughes (Lakis, 68), Watson, Riihilahti (Soares, 68), Kolkka; Johnson. Substitutes not used: Speroni (gk), Popovic.

Referee: S Dunn (Gloucestershire).

Man of the match: Scholes.

Attendance: 67,814.

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