The boy from Fort Apache a born fighter
Carlos Tevez shares the burden of carrying his side over the line, says Patrick Barclay
You may still consider the deal that brought Carlos Tevez and his Argentine compatriot Javier Mascherano to England a proper investigation waiting to happen -- but you cannot doubt Tevez's impact. Indeed you could almost call him the traditional climax to the Premier League season.
This time last year, the boy from a Buenos Aires neighbourhood known as Fort Apache -- he has the look of a born fighter -- did even more than West Ham's lawyers to save the club from relegation, leading the resistance in match after match and scoring a crucial goal in the last at Manchester United.
Now, having switched to the champions, he shares the responsibility of carrying them over the threshold at Wigan today and it is fair to say that on days like this, about which Alex Ferguson knows a great deal, the kind of character you need is exemplified by Tevez.
No wonder fans of both his English clubs have taken to him. They love a trier with talent.
Hence, when he scored against West Ham at Old Trafford eight days ago, the spontaneous applause of the visiting fans. True, it had been a magnificent goal -- a drive superficially reminiscent of, if technically not quite equal to Paul Scholes' momentous effort against Barcelona on the same ground four days earlier -- but a mere tap-in would have been enough to release appreciation for what Tevez did in his one Upton Park season.
It is not just the fans; he brings the best out of young players. Only Tevez himself did more than Mark Noble to preserve West Ham's status last season and the manner in which the teenager took his inspiration from the Latin American was both admirable and touching. In Manchester even Wayne Rooney is invigorated by Tevez. The way the gifted but unpretentious pair combined to make a goal in the 4-1 home defeat of Middlesbrough in October was one of my highlights of the season. It was the first of two by Tevez, stroked after a one-two with Rooney of delightful subtlety and precision that laid to rest the then fashionable theory that (believe it or not) they were too similar to operate effectively together in a strike partnership.
The player of the English season, of course, has been their colleague Cristiano Ronaldo. But for him, equally surely, Tevez and Rooney and the rest of Ferguson's men would already be cursing the consistency that had brought Chelsea the title back and the Footballer of the Year would probably be Didier Drogba. The former outcome may yet materialise. But the chances of a United slip are all the slimmer for the spirit you see in Tevez and Rooney, and Nemanja Vidic and the rest, not to mention the phenomenal Scholes.
This is a footballing machine built to last. And it has been assembled with extraordinary speed and skill. Seldom, since the days of Cantona, Schmeichel, Bruce, Ince and Kanchelskis, can Ferguson and his staff have been as sure-footed in the market, even if it is a different market which has yielded the likes of Ronaldo, Tevez, Nani, Anderson and Owen Hargreaves.
It may not, however, be enough to secure the great prizes at stake, because Avram Grant's Chelsea stand in United's way. Credit must be given where due and, much as it pains me to be fair to Roman Abramovich and cohorts are entitled to some recognition that the replacement of Jose Mourinho with Grant has had the desired effect so far. Chelsea have become almost popular.
It is not so much that we want United to be pipped at the Premier League post, for they have played glorious football; more that we are excited by the thunder of a challenger's hooves. Chelsea's staying power is testimony not only to the calibre of Drogba, John Terry and the rest; it makes nonsense of the suspicion, which I confess to having briefly entertained, that the Israeli was not up to the job.
On occasions during the past eight months, Chelsea have laboured, nearly losing their long unbeaten home record to Aston Villa and to Arsenal. But time and again he has proved his ability to read a game better than not only his critics -- the UEFA pro licence is hardly required for that -- but eminent rivals in the dug-out. Even Ferguson will know he has been in a game this season and, while Grant may just have run out of time in which to take the title, the European Cup can be his if the edge he has acquired through the integration of Ballack and Lampard in midfield can be capitalised upon; already, I suspect, Ferguson is wondering whether United can afford to use Hargreaves as cover at right-back again.
Even victory in Moscow will not mean Grant is necessarily a genius. My reading is that we view the function of a manager too dramatically without taking the trouble to consider what they do.
No one pays any attention to Ferguson when he says he has adapted to changing times through delegation. Few outside Old Trafford, accordingly, weigh the contribution of Carlos Queiroz.
As far as Chelsea are concerned, we concentrate on Grant and not the long-serving Stevie Clarke, for whom the players appear to have a high regard. We want triumphs and disasters, heroes and villains. And I imagine even someone less acquainted with the full meaning of humanity than the holocaust-haunted Grant would find it verging on the infantile.
Who could blame him, now Barcelona are to part company with Frank Rijkaard, for moving back to his original role as director of football and letting the Dutchman make that sexy football Abramovich craves? Grant could be Chelsea's equivalent of Carlos Tevez of West Ham: a true one-season wonder.