Inspirational Ferguson the key to another unlikely treble for United
Somehow, Manchester United are still there in three competitions.
As the international fortnight comes to its unexpectedly optimistic conclusion, as attention now turns to club competition for the rest of the season, another treble remains tantalisingly open for Alex Ferguson's team.
Which seems ridiculous to anyone who has seen much of United this year. No one could imagine that when they wilted against Liverpool, scratched around against Crawley or sank against West Ham in the Carling Cup that this was the club's second treble team in the making. Yet, with eight weeks of the season left, they are in with a shout of the lot. Surely, it can't happen again. Can it?
Like the four-minute mile, the sub-10-second 100 metres and the 29-foot long jump, the treble used to be regarded as a fanciful concept, something beyond the reach of mere mortals. Never mind that as long ago as 1958 Matt Busby had vigorously gone in search of it, its requirements were for years mythologised into something impossible.
As Leeds United proved time and again in their glory days, pursuing victory on too many fronts merely invites disappointment in at least one.
Things have changed a bit since then. When, last season, Inter Milan joined Celtic, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, United and Barcelona to become the sixth club in European football history to complete the triptych of Champions League, domestic title and home knockout trophy, the exclusivity of achievement diminished further.
Yet no matter that it has become more frequent, to complete the treble still requires an almost freakish set of circumstances.
Lucky draws, the timely intervention of the woodwork, the benevolence of the referee: on such margins does the ultimate triumph rest.
But the most obvious requirement is an outstanding group of individuals playing at the height of their powers.
Take United's treble in 1999.
Remember quite how persuasive Paul Scholes was in Milan? Or Ryan Giggs at Villa Park? Not forgetting Roy Keane in the Stadio delle Alpi. Those performances generated a momentum that ultimately became unstoppable.
There has been nothing to approach such moments this time round. Sure, there has been the occasional flash of genius, overhead kicks and Nani runs. Yes, there have been the towering defensive displays of Nemanja Vidic and some age-defying acrobatics by Edwin van der Sar. But no one could suggest Ferguson has assembled a vintage crop this time round. And the programme ahead is as tough, if not tougher, than the class of '99 faced.
In the Champions League, United have to better a resurgent Chelsea, then probably the champions Inter before meeting Barcelona, the best club side in the world.
Things aren't that much easier back home.
In the FA Cup semi they face the noisy neighbours, desperate for local ascendancy. While in the league, made more competitive than ever this season by the frantic scramble to avoid relegation, there are no easy points.
Forthcoming fixtures against West Ham and Blackpool are as fraught with danger as those against Arsenal and Chelsea.
And yet, whatever lies ahead, in this regard this United remain the equal of the greats of '99: they have put themselves in contention. Some claim they have got there by default, that they have been blessed to face rivals more incompetent than themselves. There is some evidence to back that theory up.
Take Arsenal, one week pursuing a quadruple, the next reduced by nerves, injury and goalkeeping incompetence to just a single.
Take Chelsea, stalled for much of the season by the most poisonous internal politics in the game.
Take Manchester City, hamstrung as much by fearful tactics as they are by over-weaning expectation.
But somehow United -- not without problems of their own -- have sidelined debt and an ageing creative core, to be still in there as the time arrives for bums to start squeaking.
The phrase most often grasped at by those seeking explanation is that victory is in the club's DNA. Coming out on top is in the ether at Carrington, absorbed by everyone who gets past the security gates. Just sharing a dressing-room with those who have done it before is to attend a daily seminar on what it takes to win.
Look at Chris Smalling -- from coltish potential to one regularly spoken of as a future international in less than a season. But then, as an observer no less elevated than the England manager pointed out recently, anyone playing alongside Vidic this season will be given the room and time to look good.
The most persuasive reason why United are still there, however, is the simplest: the man in charge. Ferguson's ability to generate unity in his charges remains peerless.
Sure, these days he has delegated much of the coaching work to subordinates. But the mere presence of a man who has so often been in the position to dominate at the season's climax is fundamental.
Experience allows him to know precisely what to do and what to say. No challenge takes him by surprise. Nothing makes him fearful.
Above all, he will appreciate this: time lends a certain enchantment. We may eulogise now, but back in 1999 there were few beyond the most optimistic United fans who reckoned the team of Scholes, Giggs and Keane were good enough to complete the treble.
Like his current charges, they too were dismissed as being too lightweight to achieve the ultimate.
And Ferguson will remind his players that many of us were still saying it was beyond the boys of '99 even as that historic season went into injury-time. (© Daily Telegraph, London)