Keane central to Ferguson's search for a decisive edge

After Manchester United had kept their nerve to outlast Arsenal in a penalty shoot-out at the Millennium Stadium six weeks ago, their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, suggested that even the best teams would suffer "a major blip" at some stage of the season and that, when they did, it would feel "like the end of the world".

The Community Shield was not, of course, that occasion, but their heaviest home defeat in eight seasons of European Cup football on Wednesday night, 3-0 by Internazionale, gave Highbury something close to a sinking feeling.

Now United, buoyant after a 5-0 victory over Panathinaikos, have the opportunity to hold the Londoners' heads under the water at Old Trafford this afternoon, replacing them at the head of the Premiership in the process. They will have Roy Keane back to confront Patrick Vieira at the heart of the affair, and with several other United players returning to fitness quickly enough to inspire envy in Lazarus, the two teams could be almost the same as on that scorching August day; Paul Scholes and Sol Campbell being the absentees.

What the Community Shield showed was that both sides will be competitive, and that matches between them are likely to remain vigorous: Arsenal's Francis Jeffers, subsequently allowed back to Everton on loan, was sent off then, and Campbell and Ashley Cole might have joined him. So, given that disciplinary proceedings over the Campbell case are still not finished, it was an unnecessarily provocative decision to put the same referee, Steve Bennett, in charge today.

He will need to be strong, because the players will be, with Arsenal adamant they will not the lose the physical battle as they did in a 2-0 defeat last November, when Phil Neville unexpectedly eclipsed Vieira. Arsène Wenger admits that United "wanted it more", which is something that can rarely be said against his side.

Last season, Arsenal won only what proved the least important of the three battles with United, the FA Cup fifth-round tie at Old Trafford that led to the dressing-room threat to David Beckham's looks; much more significant were the League game there and the 2-2 draw at Highbury in April, when Ferguson's celebrations on the pitch signified a moral victory.

Given the probability of three clubs - Chelsea now demand to be included - dominating the Premiership, the games between them become crucial. Ferguson, happy to crank up the pressure after the contrasting midweek results, admitted as much when he said: "It's always a significant game, because it could make a difference at the end of the season. Nobody will be getting medals or cups, but at the end of the season either club might look back and say, 'That cost us'."

Good as Inter were, Arsenal can rarely have had so many players on an off-day, the furthest off being Gilberto Silva, Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg, and Sylvain Wiltord; though no defender will recall the night with satisfaction either. Vieira, one of the better performers, but unable to wrest control from Cristiano Zanetti and Turkey's Emre (ominously for England), has been upbeat since, claiming that his team will draw strength from adversity in the club's best tradition.

"Last year, when we were in a difficult time, we always showed how strong we were," he said. "Manchester is a perfect game to show to everyone how strong we are. I'm really happy to play them because we want to show this is just one game we lost. In our mind we're strong enough to respond."

He was still prepared to admit to at least one deficiency, which must be remedied this afternoon: "We have to improve the way we defend as a team. We didn't do it really well. This is the perfect game for us to react, after the Portsmouth game and the Inter game. We will be ready. Don't worry."

He will need greater support than the persistently disappointing Gilberto Silva provided, both in protecting the defence (which shows little sign of the improvement Wenger demanded this season) and in setting the attack going. Why not Ray Parlour in the centre of midfield, to match fire with Gunners' fire?

As Hector Cuper pointed out about the performance of "an almost perfect Inter", the key was to deny Arsenal's attackers the space to play one- against-one: "that was what won us the game". Whether Dennis Bergkamp or Wiltord is preferred as Thierry Henry's accomplice, Wenger's team will need to find that space, as they often do to best effect away from Highbury.

Should they fail, it will feel, if not like the end of the world, then the end of a very bad week.

Comments