Rooney and Ronaldo conjure vision of imperious United future

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The Independent Football

In all their moping over the fact that life can be a bitch, and then you die, Manchester United desperately need a little historical perspective. Here is some wrapped up in a 40-year-old headline that said: "Nothing - but the best."

In all their moping over the fact that life can be a bitch, and then you die, Manchester United desperately need a little historical perspective. Here is some wrapped up in a 40-year-old headline that said: "Nothing - but the best."

It was applied to a young Leeds United who beat Manchester United in the last minutes of a pulsating, replayed FA Cup semi-final - in those days football thought that big issues should be settled properly, not in the shoot-out nonsense dictated by television schedules and too many matches - only to lose the final 2-1 to Liverpool in extra time. A few days earlier, in their first year back in the top flight, they tied United on 61 points in the First Division, but lost the title on goal average. It was the first time that a team with 60 points or more were not crowned champions.

All this provoked the headline that said sometimes you have to burrow down a little beyond face value to see some of the deeper truths. The most overwhelming one to come out of Arsenal's astonishing survival of one of the most sustained batterings ever administered by a losing FA Cup final team is that talk of United slipping out of contention as serious challengers to the new empire of Chelsea is, at least on the other side of one or two relatively minor correctives, nonsense.

Where we have to part company from the yellowing headline is that United, unlike that raw but incredibly motivated Leeds, did not fight every inch of the season. They were becalmed for far too much of the action, getting themselves up sufficiently to make a solid mark only when the hated Arsenal came into sight.

Again, they have dominated their most bitter foes with a record of two wins and a surreal, lopsided draw over 120 minutes of the Cup final. No, there is no doubt, Chelsea were the best team over the season but on its last Saturday, United did make a thunderous point.

In terms of talent and potential, and when the right factors are in place, United are plainly still capable of the most imperious football in the land. Agreed, Arsenal are at times practitioners of wonderful delicacy; Chelsea have a work ethic and a professional competence that has been stunning. But do either of those teams have quite the capacity of a Wayne Rooney to turn a game inside out while pushing back the boundaries on what it is normally deemed possible from one individual - and if Arjen Robben and Damien Duff were the most biting game-breakers for Chelsea, are they any better able to devastate a full-back as profoundly as Cristiano Ronaldo did Lauren?

The key to almost everything next season is United's ability to match Chelsea - particularly Chelsea - in the vital matter of genuine competitive hunger, something Sir Alex Ferguson once created every time he parked his car at the training ground.

If Ferguson does reach an accommodation with the new owner, Malcolm Glazer, if he does persuade himself that he can adapt to the changing fauna of Old Trafford (or whatever the place is eventually called after commercial negotiations), the final said his route back to triumph is not necessarily as arduous as some of the earlier evidence of the season suggested.

What does he need to do beyond buying a new goalkeeper and maybe stiffening a midfield that on Saturday, with Roy Keane forgetting his age and thoroughly dominating Patrick Vieira, and Darren Fletcher producing one of his most impressive performances, looked for once in need of mere support rather than total reconstruction?

He requires Ruud van Nistelrooy back to his old sharpness after a summer of rest and psychological recuperation, and then to tell the Dutchman, plus Rooney and Ronaldo, that with a little bit more work when the other team have the ball, they can be by some distance the most devastating unit in the English game. Even more pressingly perhaps, he has to give Rooney the role that his latest luminous performance, like so many before, demanded quite insistently.

Rooney needs to have the freedom to operate just behind or alongside Van Nistelrooy where he can hunt down the ball and perform optimum levels of destruction. On the right he was close to engulfing Arsenal; in a more central position, you have to believe that the law of averages would have carried him home.

Another mystery: why, after stripping Lauren so naked, was Ronaldo moved inside when Ryan Giggs made his late entry? It was to withdraw a sword from deep in the side of Arsenal.

What Ferguson is faced with now, if he chooses to take the challenge, is the fine tunings needed by every team, however talented, if they are to go the the distance. In all the angst that Ferguson carried away from Cardiff on Saturday, he has to be reassured by overall quality of his squad. His team played with both character and fine, easily produced talent.

Paul Scholes, so sadly at the end of a difficult season which was supposed to have been lightened by his decision to end the frustrations of his international career - where he was regularly played out of position - elected himself the goat when he missed a penalty, but his stoic expression spoke of a certain inner knowledge.

He knew what he has done for United - and what he can still do when the team is functioning somewhere near its most coherent. He knew, better than most, how close he and his team-mates had come to that.

Apart from one moment of misadventure by Roy Carroll on the edge of the box, and the crucial fact that Van Nistelrooy is still at least one notch off his best predatory instincts, there was nothing to provoke despair in the United fans who have mistaken Glazer's intervention as some recasting of their lives. It isn't. It is simply a wake-up call placed by reality. The fans should put away some of their hysteria. Glazer isn't involved in asset-stripping; he has come to maximise profits. Had he been in the Millennium Stadium, even he would have surely recognised that he has his hands on a going concern.