| united we stand: Ruud van Nistelrooy says he wants to stay at Manchester United until he retires. For the time being, on Tuesday, he celebrated United’s triumph with teammates at the team’s Carrington training ground. (Reuters)
The T-shirts being sold outside Old Trafford Monday hailed Manchester United as “The Untouchables”, following an eighth championship in 11 years, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s mind was turning to the competition where his side have been far less dominant.
“We’ve got to address the situation in terms of winning the European Cup,” said Ferguson in what sounded rather like a statement of formidable intent. United expect to be presented with the Premiership trophy half-an-hour after the final whistle of Sunday’s game at Everton, a controversial move hardly designed to delight Merseysiders. A Saturday evening ceremony at Old Trafford would make far more sense in terms of security, although the drama-obsessed television power-brokers would prefer the presentation at Goodison within minutes of the curtain falling on the season.
Ferguson’s eyes were on a different prize. Having finished his eight-some reel, the Scot has been mulling over travelling to the Bernabeu Tuesday to watch the “fantastically interesting” duel between Real Madrid and Juventus, vying for the right to reach a Champions League climax being hosted at Old Trafford on May 28.
Ferguson knows his attacking unit, sharpened so devastatingly by Ruud van Nistelrooy, is largely incisive enough to secure passage to future finals. United outscored everyone in their run to this season’s quarter finals. Ferguson’s concern is in tightening a defence that has just leaked six goals to Real. “Some of the young defenders have got to improve,” said Ferguson. “They will improve.”
With money to strengthen, particularly if he decides to cash in that golden chip called David Beckham, Ferguson could recruit a high-class defender yet the temptation may be to let the youthful axis of Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Mikael Silvestre and John O’Shea grow.
“How much European football have Wes Brown and John O’Shea really had'” pondered Ferguson. “Not a lot. In two years’ time, Wes Brown will be a far superior player. That’s the road we’ve gone down: young defenders who will get better. Defenders and goalkeepers are not finished articles until they are 28-29. Steve Bruce came here at 27 and got better and better.”
Such a promising but still coltish backline will be lent greater powers when Ferguson succeeds in finding a proper replacement for Fabien Barthez, who should follow Laurent Blanc and David May out of town this summer. Paul Robinson has been mooted as a successor to Barthez while, in the outfield positions, United have been linked with Ronaldinho, Patrick Kluivert, Harry Kewell and Damien Duff. “The squad will always need freshening up,” said Peter Kenyon, United’s chief executive, Monday.
As for Beckham, Kenyon stressed that he believed the England captain would remain at Old Trafford despite the valedictory feel emanating from the midfielder over the past fortnight. “I’m sure David will be with us next season,” insisted Kenyon.
Kenyon, who talked recently of extending Ferguson’s contract, argued that “Alex is the best manager of all time” and he has undoubtedly eclipsed the United record of the great Sir Matt Busby. Yet Bob Paisley’s haul of three European Cups with Liverpool remains the benchmark.
Ferguson certainly deserves saluting for making his players believe they could catch Arsenal and, despite the team’s ultra-competitive image, for sending out a side with the best disciplinary record in the Premiership. The Red Devils are, in fact, angels.
Critics will point to the players’ occasional hectoring of officials (although far less than before) while conspiracy theorists argue that referees favour them (no other side were awarded more penalties, seven, or conceded fewer, two). But only Southampton (42 yellows and three reds) come anywhere close to United’s clean-living Premiership tally of 43 yellows and one dismissal (Roy Keane). United receive a caution once every 77 minutes while a red card occurs only every 37 games. Contrast this with Arsenal’s one yellow every 60 minutes plus a red every 12 games.
Remove the nine cautions achieved by a non-regular, Phil Neville, and United’s numbers are even more impressive; Ryan Giggs and O’Shea have not even seen a card this Premiership season. United’s back four share only eight yellows between them — one fewer than Arsenal’s Ashley Cole. Keane has modified his tackling, using timing more than pure force. Paul Scholes hardly holds back but his worst challenges have come with England.
Van Nistelrooy can upset officials but more with his theatricals. “The Untouchables” are a credit to English football — now they just need to conquer Europe.