James Lawton: Ferguson takes eye off ball but will not admit defeat as he faces greatest crisis

The ebbing power of Manchester United and their manager was clear in the 4-1 rout at Middlesbrough
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You have to work on such a denouement over a certain length of time and not even the most committed United loyalist can argue now that decline has come in some mystifying rush.

It has not, by any means. It has been written in the sky over Old Trafford for a good two years now. Of course, there have been cul-de-sacs of optimism. Wayne Rooney has produced prodigious performances. Roy Keane has ransacked the years, plucked at his memory, and delivered remnants of leadership, physical and moral, enough to overpower, say, Arsenal. But then that is another story of lost horizons and ebbing power.

The common denominator is the rise of Chelsea, a new level of competition which has tested and - don't let's mince words - found out the two clubs who dominated the English game for so long.

Inevitably, the most pressing questions gather around the head of Ferguson. It cannot be otherwise. He set the standard, drew up requirements of performance which broke down all opposition in an unprecedented period of domination of domestic football, but maybe he had been doing it for too long when Jose Mourinho, fresh from a dazzling Champions' League triumph, so eagerly and brilliantly gathered up his resources at Stamford Bridge.

When this happened, maybe it was - and Ferguson cannot be expected to agree or even recognise the possibilities of this proposition - that the master of Old Trafford had his eye off the ball.

Immersing himself in the war with the Irish horse men, making signings like those of Kleberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba, which never began to compensate for the decline of Keane's influence on the field and in the dressing-room, Ferguson began talking a language that began to jar with even those who admired him most. He talked about the need to crank up performances in March and, most recently, how this season it was necessary to "hit the ground running".

The truth is that champions always hit the ground running ... champions, that is, who because of the nature of their particular theatre of competition, have not crushed most of the opposition before the sound of the first whistle. Maybe it was that in his 20th year of superb leadership, Ferguson, like some of his key players, was paying the price for winning too often, too easily.

Perhaps, also, he delegated too much power to his number two, Carlos Queiroz, in the belief that winning habits were so ingrained at Old Trafford that they had a momentum of their own. Yet they did not.

Players age and they become complacent. Ferguson's relationship with Keane, one of the cornerstones of success, lost its fierce but seamless driving force. Keane's was a voice raised against the "culture of ease" at Old Trafford, but no longer did it seem quite the echo of its master's.

Critically, too many signings have failed to come off. David Beckham was sold to Real Madrid because the manager felt the player's world of showbiz and celebrity was intruding too much into the affairs of the club, and to the detriment of his performances on the field. Given Beckham's failure to produce consistency for Real for more than a few matches, and the Spanish club's failure to win a major trophy, this, despite the clamour surrounding the move, did not provide a reason for the manager's indictment.

What does, however, is the breakdown in the key to the success of all football dynasties. Replenishment has not happened to the required degree. Ronaldo initially promised to wipe away the memory of Beckham. He has his moments, but it has not happened in any deep way. Rooney is, of course, immense, but as we have seen in recent weeks, only so much can be asked of one man, however luminous his talent.

Ruud van Nistelrooy still gives a passable impression of passion, still reaches for the sky when he scores a goal, but does he consistently operate with his old force and bite? The hard answer is no. Paul Scholes, the magnificent, the stoic, the apparently untouchable Scholes, has been drained of his bite. Darren Fletcher and Alan Smith, around whom much hope was pinned, are falling short of the highest standards.

So what does the old warrior Ferguson do? Does he reach yet again for the hairdryer? Does he tell the Glazers that the January shop window has to be smashed with nerveless force? Or does he reluctantly accept that the old force of his authority has gone, perhaps for ever?

The last option is plainly the least likely because it would amount to an announcement of defeat. Such a declaration has never been in the nature of the man who peered so stonily into the future on Saturday night. If this is so, it means he has no choice but to fight the tide. It is, however you look at it, the great crisis of an astonishing football life.