Questions mount for Ferguson as he ponders United's failings

Manchester United 4 Stoke City 0
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The Independent Football

Manchester United certainly know how to lose titles the hard way. They had held onto the Premier League crown for 1,097 days before Chelsea wrenched it back yesterday. And to go with the memory of Jose Mourinho leaping up to shake the hands of the United bench at Stamford Bridge before the final whistle had even been blown four years ago, came the indignity yesterday of Stoke City fans chanting "John Terry is lifting the cup", which followed every blow struck down at Chelsea. Someone hoisted up a plastic palm tree because they hadn't thought to pack an inflatable trophy but the message was clear enough.

Stoke's fans also played their part in drowning out Sir Alex Ferguson' s now traditional centre circle address. Last year, Ferguson was deafened by his own fans' demands to sign Carlos Tevez. Yesterday, it was United chants of "Glazers Out" and a Stoke riposte of "USA." A surreal occasion indeed.

All hope had gone after half an hour, Ferguson revealed last night, though there was also a wretched significance about out the way the goals went in at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge - Chelsea marginally edged United to the first and second and matched United's third within seconds, before streaking off to an annihilation.

The statistic which tells the story this morning is not Didier Drogba's place at the top of the goalscoring charts but Frank Lampard's fifth position. He is just four goals behind Rooney, an extraordinary achievement for a midfielder – which is precisely what the football world was saying about Cristiano Ronaldo before he drove his Bentley into the sunset last summer.

Ferguson could not resist ruminating again last night over the questionable free kick Martin Atkinson awarded to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on 8 November, from which Didier Drogba scored the goal that was arguably offside.

But in the end, it all came down to no one being around to fill the boots of Rooney. When the TV cameras panned to the striker on 53 minutes, wincing under a recurrence of his groin strain and signalling an urgent need to leave the field, it somehow summed up the wretched two-week period at the start of last month which put United out of Europe and brought the most decisive result of the entire Premier League season – the 2-1 home defeat to Chelsea.

Ferguson had his gracious words ready: "I congratulate Carlo because it's a wonderful achievement. He's a good manager and a good guy" – not the kind of tribute he would ever have offered Mourinho. But his programme notes provided the impression of a man who is going through some dark moments of self doubt. There was a trace of self-justification in his request that fans "remember that when I arrived at Old Trafford, Liverpool were winning the championship on a regular basis, while we had gone 20 years without the title. We changed all that and in fact have won the Premier League on 11 occasions, so I think we have moved in the right direction.

"Naturally I look into my own management and the rest of the staff. Did I always make the right team selections with the appropriate tactics? Do we have a strong enough squad?"

The manager did not answer either of his own questions, but there is a growing sense that the answer to the second is "no". Ferguson also believes there is "a harder competitive edge in the Premier League these days; it's a tough old league, very unforgiving, and a lot of the teams at the top have lost games they expected to win."

The club is so evidently in need of someone to shape the midfield and drive the side on. Michael Carrick, who has not started a game since the Champions League exit to Bayern Munich, was conspicuous by his absence from Ferguson's list of players whom the club has reason to celebrate.

At least the brilliance of United's play on a sun-dappled pitch in the first half gave the manager reason to feel there are more fine days ahead, with the prime force again being Luis Nani, who has shown enough in the past month to suggest that he could become one of the outstanding forces of the next Premier League campaign. The first goal owed more to Stoke's defensive failings – Andy Wilkinson, having blocked Nemanja Vidic's header, lumped the ball straight at Dean Whitehead and Darren Fletcher buried the loose ball. The second summed up United's fluency, Berbatov running hard down the right wing – another surreal moment – and crossing for Giggs to fire home under Asmir Begovic's body. Danny Higginbotham helpfully provided the third, sliding in a ball which Rooney had swivelled past Robert Huth to cross and, after Stoke twice brought immaculate finger tip saves from Edwin van der Sar, Ji-Sung Park confirmed the rot at the heart of Tony Pulis' defence, running to throw himself into a header after Nani and substitute Federico Macheda had both missed connecting with Giggs' corner.

"Next season we will go again and hopefully we will go again and bring back the title to the best place in the world. That's what Manchester United do," Ferguson said on the pitch, a few minutes later. But his club is in flux. This will be a hard summer.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Scholes (Gibson, 62), Fletcher, Giggs; Rooney (Park, 77), Berbatov (Macheda, 62). Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Carrick, O'Shea, Evans

Stoke City (4-5-1): Begovic; Wilkinson, Shawcross, Huth, Higginbotham (Collins, 67); Delap, Whitehead (Diao, 67), Whelan, Etherington; Sidibe (Pugh, 67), Fuller. Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Faye, Lawrence, Sanli

Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear)

Booked: Manchester United Scholes, Vidic

Man of the Match: Nani

Attendance: 75,316

England watch

Gary Neville was tidy again, linking well with Nani to suggest that he deserves serious consideration, particularly since Wes Brown – who didn't play and has not appeared since 23 February – seems to have no chance of consideration. Rio Ferdinand lasted 90 minutes, but was twice beaten by Mamady Sidibe and looked short of match action. Wayne Rooney was superb before aggravating his groin injury. Owen Hargreaves' non-appearance rules him out from playing a part for Fabio Capello. Ryan Shawcross's role in a dire Stoke defence does not elevate his chances of a place either.

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