Scholes, the pedigree finisher living off scraps

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The Independent Football

By the standards which led Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira to hail him as England's best player, Scholes has endured a mediocre start to the season. The question vexing the Old Trafford faithful was whether his display against Blackburn, whose winning goal he gifted, signified a long-term decline. One match was never going to provide a definitive answer, but as Benfica discovered, he will not fade away quietly.

Neither popular acclaim, nor its downside, has ever interested Scholes, a semi-reclusive family man. However, as he lined up before kick-off - on the surface, the same, pink-cheeked, urchin-like figure who struck two goals on his debut at Port Vale 11 years ago this week - the pressure was on him to reproduce something that resembled his best football.

If relinquishing the captaincy to Ryan Giggs was a relief, a first goal in 13 games would have been a cause for rapture. It never arrived, though not for want of trying.

The first 50 seconds found him swivelling on to Cristiano Ronaldo's knock-down inside Benfica's penalty area. The beauty of Scholes as a finisher is the range of his repertoire - brutal drives, impudent flourishes and flashing headers that belie his 5ft 7in - but the way he skied the ball was merely a reminder of the stadium's occasional use for rugby league.

Starting as an advanced midfielder, Scholes could certainly not be accused of being frightened to fail. A typical break from midfield in pursuit of Ruud van Nistelrooy's through-ball was thwarted only by the goalkeeper's rapid advance. Then came a headlong dive at Giggs' cross, an ambitious attempt given that he was 15 yards from goal, and before the break a thunderous volley which fizzed tantalisingly wide.

Sir Alex Ferguson talked beforehand of being happy to accept a scruffy goal; one going in off an unwitting posterior would do nicely. While Scholes frequently made it into the backside zone, it began to look as if United had used up their share of deflections when Giggs' free-kick took a decisive detour off Simão Sabrosa six minutes before half-time.

Despite their lead, it was apparent that United's problems run deeper than one influential individual being out of touch. There are deficiencies throughout the side - some reflecting a loss of confidence, others a lack of genuine quality - and it is Scholes' misfortune to be part of a midfield that is struggling to gel. Roy Keane's absence is obviously a factor, and the risks inherent in deploying Alan Smith as a ball-winner were evident when he committed the foul that led to Sabrosa's equaliser.

Ferguson's critics - a phrase that still has a bizarre ring - argue that he should have done more to bolster that department. True, the one player the manager coveted, the Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, was not available. Yet in summers past United missed out on Xabi Alonso and Michael Essien, signing Eric Djemba-Djemba just as the latter was moving to Lyon. In such company, Scholes would surely have been less likely to lose his sparkle.

He kept beavering away, adopting a position just off the front in the second half, and with 20 minutes left slid in to meet Phil Bardsley's low cross at point-blank range. A Benfica boot took the ball away from his outstretched foot, momentarily leaving Scholes as bereft as Paul Gascoigne after his crucial failure to connect in the semi-final of Euro 96.

United's winner restored his equilibrium - Salford's finest is nothing if not a team player - and Scholes will take heart from the fact that the scorer, Van Nistelrooy, has recovered from a similar lean spell he endured last season.