| Paul Scholes, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs have all produced authoritative performances
Simple, really. Manchester United are winning the title race because more of their big names are showing themselves to be big men. Too many of Arsenal’s marquee players are failing to impose their will in the games that really count. Spring has made United bloom. Tottenham Hotspur’s neighbours — the reigning champions, remember — have gone straight to autumn without seeing summer.
There was a 40th goal of the season for Ruud Van Nistelrooy Sunday and strike No. 20 for Paul Scholes. What does that tell you' These statistics point to a talent for delivering, for distinguishing between early-season theatre and those defining contests that are announced by the Easter bunny.
In the first-half Sunday, the arm tired from recording all Van Nistelrooy’s missed chances (five in all). But only terminal myopia could blind you to the wider truth about this Dutchman’s astonishing prowess. Among those 40 of all shapes and sizes are 21 Premiership goals and 14 more in Europe.
As Sir Alex Ferguson joked afterwards, if he had taken all his chances Sunday his tally this morning would be something like “48”.
Like Roy Keane in his prime, United have chased Arsenal all the way through spring and regained possession of the beach ball with which Arsene Wenger’s men had entertained their fans. Arsenal thrilled the socks off us before Christmas but have been less commanding in the season’s second half.
United lost to Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough before the turn of the year but have since unleashed a whirlwind, winning 13 of their 16 subsequent league games and drawing the other three. By word and deed, Sir Alex Ferguson has turned the psychological ratchet on opponents who may be settling into a pattern of having a spectacular year followed by one of under-achievement.
Another telling detail is that United fell eight points behind as recently as March 2 but are now five points clear at the top of the Premiership and so can’t be passed if they win their remaining couple of games. By Sunday, after Arsenal play Leeds at home, Ferguson’s men could have their mitts on an eighth Premiership title inside 11 seasons.
They owe their present position to authoritative performances by the likes of Van Nistelrooy, Scholes and recently Ryan Giggs: to an ingrained fear of losing their domestic hegemony.
Sunday’s potentially seminal encounter was about one club who used to be famous losing tamely to one who simply refuse to vacate the light. Domestically, at any rate. This must be one of Ferguson’s most uneven seasons. On the weekend Arsenal beat Charlton Athletic to glide eight points clear, United lost the Worthington Cup final to Liverpool. Arsenal knocked Ferguson and Co. out of the FA Cup.
In Europe they ran into one half of a great Real Madrid team (the front half) and were dispatched 6-5 on aggregate. A subject for debate in the global village of United fanaticism is whether another Premiership title will be regarded as a sufficient return on all that investment.
An educated guess is that Ferguson will not be tricked into thinking that all is well in the red kingdom and will start to build again. On another day of frantic speculation about David Beckham’s future, it was a relief to see United the team, the entity, form themselves into a brotherhood of shared ambition.
This is not the time for individual preoccupations to take precedence over the needs of the club. The Sunday papers had most possibilities covered.
Beckham was staying, going, taking a drop in income to go to Spain and attracting the attentions of Italian clubs, who may emerge as bidding rivals to Real Madrid (the pay-cut line was particularly well-sourced and will remind the plutocrats of Madrid that he doesn’t come cheap).
On the front pages, there were stories about Victoria Beckham’s weight and an intruder at ‘Beckhingham Palace’. Then there was the big American TV interview. The Sunday Times Rich List had the couple valued at £50 m. Oh, and he played well Sunday after his agonising spell on the bench against Liverpool, Arsenal and Real Madrid.
We live in strange times. J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, turns out to be £30 m richer than the Queen. With Beckham, on the pitch, the eye tries to see through the pea-souper of his fame.
Like Van Nistelrooy and Scholes, Beckham is answering the old United compulsion. Arsenal will take no comfort from a run-down of United’s weaknesses. They have reached this point without a consistently reliable goalkeeper and Rio Ferdinand has been missing in action for much of the past two months. Keane was never the most fluent mover, but his gait now is pained, almost arthritic.
His daily struggle is to make the body reach the places he wants it to go. His mouth, though, remains in fine order. Few of his teammates escaped a scorching exhortation while Tottenham were tottering to the end of another stagnant year.
Don’t ask me to define human character. But it might be possible to point to one or two Manchester United players and talk about what they’ve achieved since Christmas.