Keane's hunger charges rehearsal

Charity Shield: Liverpool rule the kingdom of cups but Van Nistelrooy's second-half display will lift United for the long haul of the Premiership
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Sir Alex Ferguson's first step in his final season of running for the glory may have ended in a 2-1 defeat, but, as Liverpool paraded victoriously at the Millennium Stadium for a third time in five months, you looked in vain for a trace of serious agitation on the face of this least tranquillized of football men. Nor did you exactly feel the first tremor of a new order in the English game.

This is not to say Liverpool did not add a little weight to the growing sense that this surely is the season they do serious business in the Premiership. Michael Owen remains a one-man conflagration, making one goal and scoring another, his 13th in his last eight games, and their goalkeeper Sander Westerveld returned from injury with a couple of saves of the highest rank.

Hence the victory, and another flourish in an orgy of cup-winning, but in all the celebrations there had to be the old question. Are they really ready for the long haul, the week-in, week-out exploitation of high talent and reawakened ambition?

Beyond the field there was still another doubt as Robbie Fowler remained, though uninjured, in civilian clothes. The Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, said that his omission from the game ­ and the seven-man subs' bench ­ was an "internal" decision. It was hard to resist the idea that this was shorthand for another point of pressure in the selection process that demands that players of the quality of Fowler and Jari Litmanen ­ not to mention Owen ­ are periodically required to sit out the action. It is surely the anvil on which so much of Liverpool's momentum in a League season has been battered, a feeling heightened by the recent memory of Fowler's man-of-the-match performance for England in Athens.

For all his spectacular progress in the shaping of a gifted squad, Houllier seems to return to the chains of his striking rotation. Rotated most vigorously, you have to suspect, is pure frustration.

For Ferguson, as Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have learned, there is just one imperative. It is to respond to the needs and the demands of the man in charge.

Yesterday Ferguson's mood was of a trainer ready to take the action from the gallops and on to the course. There are many degrees of defeat, and this one scarcely registered on United -- a reaction which was no doubt underpinned by a second-half performance that more than anything reminded us of Roy Keane's extreme distaste for the concept of losing.

Ferguson, at least, was plainly reassured. Some silver, the man who has acquired unprecedented amounts of it these last 10 years seemed to be saying, is just not worth crying over. The Charity Shield, he would tell you, has about as much intrinsic value as the Vice-Presidency of the United States, which one holder of that office rated on a par with a "pitcher of cold spit." All available evidence confirms the Ferguson view. United have now lost the last four Charity Shield games but, by way of compensation, they win the Premiership. All of English football would kill for such a trade-off.

Whether Ferguson would have displayed quite such equanimity if his £19m signing Ruud van Nistelrooy had not snapped out of his impersonation of a shire horse and scored a goal of easy skill and chilling authority is, however, a rather different matter.

From the United perspective, this was a less than overwhelming dress rehearsal, of course, but then United and Ferguson do not really do rehearsals. They do winning, and in this you have to believe the big Dutchman will emerge soon enough as a significant asset. His goal was taken with such natural assurance and power that it was easy to assign his earlier fumblings to the pressure of his first showpiece occasion in his new arena. Buoyed by the return of the midfield master Juan Sebastian Veron, away on international duty with Argentina this weekend, United can be counted to provide Fulham with a fiery welcome to the top flight next Sunday.

For Ferguson, the stakes have of course never been higher. Veron and Nistelrooy represent so much more than standard team-strengthening. They are vital elements in the manager's last push for glory, one that he believes, as romantically as any schoolboy behind the professional front, can finish in the most extraordinary career validation at Hampden Park in the European Cup final at Hampden Park next spring. The United manager has already made it clear that he will avoid discussion of the implications of his last year in charge of the side that he has pushed so relentlessly for so long.

But the drama is implicit and will be so until the end of his last campaign. Here in Cardiff yesterday there were points of strong reassurance. Keane, stimulated no doubt by the arrival of the master-pro Veron, remains a tidal force of resolution and, as so often is the case, it was by his insistence that the game began to run away from Liverpool in the second half. Ryan Giggs ran with bite and confidence at times, and when Yorke came on in the second half he showed an appetite for the action that suggested Ferguson's summer lecturing had had some impact.

It means that the coming season provides any number of challenges within the Old Trafford dressing-room, and not the least of them resides in the silver boots of the England captain, David Beckham. His impact was marginal in a game watched by the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, and when Veron returns, presumably at the expense of Nicky Butt, Beckham's response needs to be considerably more intense than the one he brought to yesterday's affair. He has announced himself, repeatedly, as a player enjoying the fruits of maturity, but the physical evidence was scant against the awakening ambition of Liverpool yesterday.

Keane remains the ramrod of Ferguson's dreams. His commitment remains the single most compelling reason to believe in their chances of fulfilment. That he made it plain even while playing for the Charity Shield was the most remarkable fact of a probably inconsequential football day.