James Lawton: Ferguson feels newcomer's head-pat like a kick up the backside

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Something rather amazing happened at Stamford Bridge this week and it had nothing to do with Jose Mourinho's outrageous suggestion that Sir Alex Ferguson might ever do anything as raw and unprincipled as trying to intimidate a referee.

Something rather amazing happened at Stamford Bridge this week and it had nothing to do with Jose Mourinho's outrageous suggestion that Sir Alex Ferguson might ever do anything as raw and unprincipled as trying to intimidate a referee.

It was Ferguson plainly, and for the first time in at least 10 years of Premiership action, responding to another football man's agenda. Remember his declaration after his second-string team cuffed Arsenal's international chorus line of likely lads out of the Carling Cup?

It didn't matter who United drew in the semis, said Fergie, he would continue to operate at the same level of reduced strength in the least desired of the four trophies available to the leading clubs. But that was before United were paired with Chelsea - and long after Mourinho had made it clear he had told his squad that all football's baubles were to be considered fair game.

Ferguson's dramatic change of policy can only have been underlined by Exeter's draw at Old Trafford in the FA Cup - and with it the posing of a huge question mark against the health of the competitive culture shaping the performance and attitudes of a pool of players still arguably the most talented in the English game.

Ferguson's insistence that he would do things his own way - picking and choosing his priorities on a week-by-week basis - had been unequivocally stated from the moment he landed United's historic treble of Premiership, FA Cup and Champions' League in 1999. This included the shocking abandonment of the FA Cup in the following season.

Such was Ferguson's thinking right up to the arrival and impact of Mourinho. Though he ridiculed this week the idea that it was possible to go beyond his own team's 1999 achievement and add the Carling Cup to one season's haul, Ferguson's comments were less persuasive than his actions. Before the end of the fiercely fought 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge front-line troops like Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Louis Saha, Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Smith had all been thrown into the attempt to pin back Mourinho's horizons.

The resulting failure of Chelsea to achieve any kind of advantage before their visit to Old Trafford in the second leg thus raised the most intriguing of mid-season possibilities.

It is that perhaps the ever-growing assurance of Mourinho's style - his willingness to trade punches with any rival, to nonchalantly pat Ferguson on the back of his head during the post-game handshake, and to say precisely what is on his mind - has finally convinced the Old Trafford manager and his team that they are on the point of being marginalised.

Maybe a zillion roubles have finally dropped... perhaps United have finally grasped that they can no longer cherry-pick the money tree of English football, that reputations and contracts are to be played for game by game, competition by competition.

Rooney's disciplinary problems - and his continuing failure to deliver more than fleeting evidence of the majesty he displayed in both the European Championship and his Champions' League debut for United - perhaps have to be placed in the context of a club in sharp need of a reassessment of goals and attitude.

While United have had no problem in meeting the head-to-head challenge presented by Arsenal, Ferguson has for a season and a half been pursuing something more than sporadic brilliance and at Stamford Bridge we saw maybe the clearest demonstration of a fully committed United since they overcame the reigning champions in October.

The goal-line clearances of Gabriel Heinze and Phil Neville spoke of a team who had received the hard message that it was time to fight on every front. In the process we had the engaging possibility of a United, deeply chastened by recent goalless displays against Spurs and Exeter, indeed redoubling their efforts to close the 11-point lead of Chelsea.

Though it is an immense challenge on the face of it, Ferguson will not be slow to point out that such leads have evaporated in the past. Kevin Keegan's Newcastle imploded after being 12 points clear, Arsenal threw away the title two years ago, and back in 1971 when the Highbury team landed the double they were required to make up seven points on Leeds United from February at a time when only two points were awarded for a win.

Not the least fascinating exercise this week was comparing the talent at the disposal of Mourinho and Ferguson. The success of Arjen Robben, Damien Duff, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry this season has maybe produced an exaggerated estimate of Mourinho's strength. Which Chelsea players, for example, would Ferguson take back to Old Trafford as first-team choices? Either of the Chelsea goalkeepers, Petr Cech or Carlo Cudicini, no doubt. John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, maybe, but not before Rio Ferdinand, who Ferguson recently claimed was the best defender in the world. Frank Lampard and Arjen Robben and Damien Duff? Perhaps, but not when Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs and Ronaldo were on their best days, as Scholes and Giggs have been recently. Would you trade Van Nistelrooy or Rooney for Drogba or Gudjohnsen? Hardly.

The more relevant argument is about which squad of players has the superior commitment and work ethic on every battle front. Until this week the answer was self-evident. Chelsea were marching on another level. But not on Wednesday night, not when you had to ask: has Ferguson found his lost chord at last? If it is the case, the real battle may just have begun.