United lose plot as new order move in

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The Independent Football

Thank heavens Le King wears a thick beard these days. How else would Eric Cantona, a player who has come to symbolise Manchester United's dominance these last 12 years, have hidden his blushes at Old Trafford yesterday?

Thank heavens Le King wears a thick beard these days. How else would Eric Cantona, a player who has come to symbolise Manchester United's dominance these last 12 years, have hidden his blushes at Old Trafford yesterday?

The Frenchman may not be a potential Oscar winner, but the footballer-turned-actor can just about disguise shock and consternation. No bad thing, really, because the uncertain and disjointed team he watched surrender second place in the League to Chelsea bore no resemblance to the united and vibrant one he left seven years ago. Several of the players may still be here, but the ethos and, most notably, the aura of invincibility have long gone.

It says everything about this side that their most prolific goalscorer cannot even net a penalty at Old Trafford these days. Only an awful mistake by the Chelsea goalkeeper, Carlo Cudicini, enabled Ruud van Nistelrooy to restore some pride and a little self-belief. That said, the Dutchman's loss of confidence is symptomatic of a set of players who no longer seem sure where they are going.

Have the club as a whole lost their way, too? Although the much publicised disagreement between the United manager and two of the biggest share-holders, John Magnier and J P McManus, has been resolved, there can be no doubt that the team suffered as a result of Sir Alex Ferguson's battle over Rock Of Gibraltar. The Rio Ferdinand saga was another unfortunate distraction. The England defender, who came as close to the Old Trafford turf as at any time since January when he joined his team-mates for a lap of honour after the final whistle- for finishing third? - was greatly missed in the second half of the season.

Looking back now, it is clear that there were not enough natural leaders in the dressing room to prevent the off-field troubles from affecting the players. The squad's lack of depth and quality has been all too evident this season, as United have repeatedly struggled when the big names have been missing. Two or three years ago, when his team dominated the domestic landscape, Sir Alex had terrific options at his disposal, players such as Teddy Sheringham and Jesper Blomqvist who he could call upon to change the course of a game. These days, he has to rely on the likes of David Bellion and Kleberson.

Worse still, one senses that, for the first time in over a decade, the Scot is not sure of his best starting XI. Should he pick Tim Howard or Roy Carroll in goal? Quinton Fortune or John O'Shea at left-back? Darren Fletcher or Cristiano Ronaldo on the right wing? Nicky Butt or Phil Neville in Roy Keane's all-important holding position in central midfield? Van Nistelrooy or Diego Forlan up front? Sorry, at least one position still looks after itself.

Never before, in the 12-year existence of the Premiership, has Ferguson faced so many selection dilemmas every week. In fact, yesterday he even felt compelled to make changes during the first half. You know all is not well in the land of Manchester United when Paul Scholes, arguably the most consistent performer during the last 10 years of Ferguson's reign, is taken off 10 minutes before the break to avoid dismissal.

True, United played into Chelsea's hands by starting in a 4-5-1 formation that matched the visitors', but there is a world of difference between re-jigging the system and removing a potential match-winner. There is no denying Louis Saha's pace and trickery were much needed up front against a well organised Chelsea side, but just imagine Claudio Ranieri ever taking Frank Lampard out of the Chelsea equation.

But the real root of United's problems lies in their soft under-belly. No one could have predicted that the club who were served by enforcers such as Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, Cantona and, of course, Keane, could become so vulnerable.

Chelsea's 19th-minute opener yesterday summed up the current malaise. First, Howard fumbled to concede an unnecessary - if still hotly disputed - corner, and then the United rearguard stood and watched as Jesper Gronkjaer was given time and space to fire the visitors in front. Jaap Stam may never have looked quite as elegant as Wes Brown when in possession, and Steve Bruce would never have been able to match Mikaël Silvestre for pace, but neither of those two former United central defenders would have hesitated for one second to throw themselves in front of the ball in a time of need.

Ferguson may point out that the last, and only, time United finished outside the Premiership's top two (in 2002), they won the League title the following season. Not even Cantona could act as if he believed history was about to repeat itself.

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