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Fergie keeping ordinary team on treble trail

It is the way it generally is in the fashion of death and taxes, of course, but has there ever been a more bitter harvest in key areas of English football? Almost wherever you look there is a picture of one of the top managers in some degree of torment.

Harry Redknapp contemplates the debris of a brilliant Champions League campaign which splintered in his mind the moment he realised this week that, for all their previous heroics, he had a Spurs team, who in several critical cases, were unready for their moment of truth in the Bernabeu Stadium.

Arsene Wenger has to wonder how much mileage he has left in his agonising journey to the end of the rainbow.

Carlo Ancelotti's plight might have been frozen for all time on Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge when, perhaps against his better football instincts, he withdrew Didier Drogba while leaving Fernando Torres to the £50m challenge that pushed him, humiliatingly, into a crass piece of cheating.

Yes, it's true that redemption may just be around the corner for at least two of these embattled managers. For Ancelotti, the one-goal deficit at Old Trafford next week is not the sharpest hill he has ever had to climb and, who knows, Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere may relight some fires for Wenger who has never been more questioning about the sources of his confidence.

However, who needs telling where the most powerful momentum now lies? Who has too much congenital detestation of the most remarkable manager in the history of English football not to acknowledge that it is once again the property of Alex Ferguson?

The Wayne Rooney controversy still reverberates. Critics of Ferguson's one-eyed view of football have never been so clamorous. There is still widespread belief that United's whole season has been a triumph for smoke and mirrors.

Yet bookmakers, who tend not to be diverted by such phenomena, have put United virtually out of sight for the Premier League title at 1/5 and yesterday installed them as joint second favourites with Real Madrid to stop Barcelona.

There was also the evidence of our own eyes in west London this week. Much praise has already gone to Rooney, who produced by some distance the best performance of his season, and Michael Carrick, who displayed some of the vital signs that seemed to have disappeared two years ago in Rome when United's collective will imploded against Barca almost as profoundly as that of Tottenham's in Madrid.

Perhaps, though, Rio Ferdinand deserved more than fleeting honourable mentions. His ability to rise above the frailties of his body, and the general assumption that, in football terms, it might fall apart at any moment, is borderline spooky.

Few defenders have ever imparted such a sense of inward serenity and almost extrovert calm. Ferdinand creates an island and when he is at his best, as he was on Wednesday, it is one that pushes back the sea.

When you throw in another example of Ryan Giggs' durability and the strength and good-heartedness of the returning Antonio Valencia, there was an unavoidable conclusion. It was that Ferguson was again in charge of resources that might just might stretch to a stunning coup.


If he should win either the Champions League or the Premier League it will, indeed, be a staggering achievement. If he should carry off both, and also pick up the FA Cup like some greedy kid in a sweet shop, we are surely entering the realms of fantasy.

United, it has been an article of faith by all their rivals since last autumn, are represented by maybe the weakest team since Ferguson broke through two decades ago.

They have won games they should have lost by a combination of brutally imposed will and the three-card trick.

Yet if the light wasn't blinding at Stamford Bridge, it was more than sufficient to illuminate the fact that United had never this season shown so much implicit understanding of what they are about.

At the very least, they looked like a more than decent team, which is generally the conclusion when you see someone score a goal as good as the one fashioned by Carrick, Giggs and Rooney.

For United it seemed not so much galvanising as reassuring.

They shouldn't do it, they are probably not good enough, but they just might. Creating this possibility alone is a stunning achievement and, however reluctantly we do it, we know where to send the flowers.

Irish Independent