Return of cool head Vidic calms Fergie's fire
MANCHESTER UTD 2 WEST BROM 0
Perhaps all Alex Ferguson, sport's most famous and combustible septuagenarian, needed in order to calm his volatile nature was the sight of Nemanja Vidic orchestrating Manchester United's back four.
Just three days after his touchline explosion at the officials in the 4-3 victory over Newcastle, and two days short of his 71st birthday, Ferguson cut a far more serene figure as he left his dugout to oversee the closing stages of a relatively anxious victory.
The big difference between the two fixtures, however, was not so much the behaviour of the manager but the composure of a United defence, which, with Vidic at its core after his recovery from knee surgery, looks far more capable.
For just the second time in 18 league and cup games, United emerged from a match with a clean sheet, although the 28 Premier League goals they have conceded to date still represents an appalling effort by their supreme standards.
In three of their last four title-winning seasons, for example, United have conceded less than that in the entire campaign.
"After the drama of the Newcastle game, it was the sort of gritty win you need in a title race," said left-back Patrice Evra. "It was an unbelievable game against Newcastle but today was more about don't concede a goal, a solid performance, and we finished with a clean sheet and the three points. That was the most important thing."
The reasons for United's defensive shortcomings have been debated long and hard, with even Ferguson himself admitting he has been at a loss to explain them fully.
Suffice to say, much store has been placed upon the return of Vidic, who has lost much of the last two seasons to injuries.
A commanding seven-point lead at the top of the Premier League has been amassed despite their defensive problems and the temptation is to assume that the Serbian's return could leave United with a clear path towards claiming a 20th title in May.
The truth is rarely so straightforward, of course, and, at the age of 31, Vidic hardly sounds full of optimism that he can enjoy an injury-free second half of the season.
"The doctor is managing the games I am playing at the moment," said Vidic. "Over the first two or three months I have to really look at that because sometimes I might have a reaction. This is a process I have to go through."
There is also the small matter of the Premier League's unpredictable nature, with United facing a reminder of the uncertainties of this division tomorrow when they visit Wigan – the scene of a surprising defeat last season which marked a significant turning point in their eventually unsuccessful title bid.
Ferguson was, naturally, in no mood for premature celebrations. "It is important that we do not sit at the top of the table admiring our position," he said.
"We would soon get a rude awakening. Congratulating ourselves on our Premier League lead doesn't mean a thing to me; it's winning the next game that counts."
There are some at Old Trafford who sense that 2013, the 30th anniversary of perhaps his greatest triumph – taking Aberdeen past Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners' Cup – will be his last year in management. Only Ferguson knows and his self-imposed deadlines have been famously elastic.
After changing his mind about retirement in 2002, he announced a couple of years later that, unlike Bobby Robson, he would not be managing a Premier League club at 70.
However, if – as seems likely – Jose Mourinho, David Moyes and Pep Guardiola are all out of contract in the summer, somebody at Old Trafford might have to gently tap him on the shoulder.
That someone might have to take a very stiff drink first.
Ferguson is dismissive about talk of his age. He absolutely refused to discuss what it meant to be 70 this time last year and in the two volumes of diaries he kept in the 1990s, he refers directly to his birthday in neither.
However, it says something about his longevity that he said he first got to know his opposite number on Saturday, Steve Clarke, "when he was a boy at St Mirren" – the one club where Ferguson tasted failure in management.
"I don't know if I would last until I was 71," said the Albion manager, who is a mere 49.
"It would be great to think there would be someone like that in the future, someone who had that longevity.
"But the way the game has gone, everything is more short-term now and it will be really difficult, if not impossible, to match his achievements and build a dynasty as he has done."
With Ferguson raging at referees into his seventies and slapping down men like the Newcastle manager Alan Pardew for displaying insufficient respect, he will never, like Robson, become a national treasure. However, that, to Clarke, is part of his fascination.
"I have met a few grumpy 70-year-olds and he is a typical grumpy Scot," joked Clarke.
"He likes to go chasing. He hasn't lost his hunger or desire. I worked with Sir Bobby at a similar age and he was the same, if maybe not quite so aggressive, but with that same will to win."
Clarke could leave Old Trafford with head held high after his team's performance.
United needed a deflection off Gareth McAuley, from an Ashley Young cross, and an injury-time effort from Robin van Persie to see off the visitors. (© Daily Telegraph, London)