Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

James Lawton: Manchester United in crisis? What crisis?

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 07: Man United player Shinji Kagawa (l) gets in a cross despite the challenge of Shane Ferguson during the Barclays Premier league game between Newcastle United and Manchester United at Sports Direct Arena on October 7, 2012 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Howard Webb and his team of World Cup final officials were roughly a millimetre away from still another goal-line controversy but if there is any lingering uncertainty about the denial of the goal Demba Ba claimed when David de Gea scooped away his header, another debate is surely stone dead.

It is the one suggesting that Sir Alex Ferguson, despite the acquisition of Robin van Persie, has recently been doing no more than attempting to delay the realities of inevitable decline.



Tottenham's victory at Old Trafford last weekend, a defence apparently approaching the point of a collective nervous breakdown and a midfield running short of both legs and creativity, may have written the word "crisis" in the sky above Tyneside yesterday. United, though, kept their heads down and applied them to the tricky challenge of subduing the likes of Ba and Papiss Cissé.



Crisis? It was more a case of attending to business and this was accomplished so impressively that what we had was the moving day when United secured second place behind Chelsea. Power was settling in the familiar places.



There was no doubt about the authority returning to some recently careworn faces.



With the familiar exception of a Balotelli – this is an Italian surname which for reasons too wearisome to recall has come to mean any phenomenon that suggests there have been rather too many flights over the cuckoo's nest – the representatives of the capital of English football returned to quite impressive working order.



Having been utterly outclassed by the champions of Germany, Manchester City finally looked as if they might have won a league of their own not so long ago.



But if City were hugely buoyed by the arrival of Sergio Aguero, a serious talent and a properly grown-up personality, United looked the part of impressively rehabilitated contenders the moment Wayne Rooney unfurled the opening evidence that he may have been experiencing the first day of the rest of his football life at the apex of his team's new midfield diamond.



Supported by Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa, Rooney took hold of a game which was supposed to be another severe test of that fragile defence and a midfield no longer fit for the highest purpose.



When Robin van Persie and Rooney sent in the corners which enabled Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra to effectively end the contest inside 20 minutes, the doomsday speculation seemed distinctly overwrought.



Certainly Rooney's new assignment brought out some of the most impressive of his qualities and, at the very least, put on hold those fears that he had come into a new season unprepared both physically and psychologically. Ferguson, having dropped him early in the season, was at pains afterwards to say that his man was still in the process of gaining full fitness and that when the happy point was reached the options he offered might become more refined.



The hunch was that he would play a little more forward than when he was undermining Newcastle. However, the certainty is that Ferguson faces the rest of the season with a confidence that he could not have envisaged on the journey to a place which awakened 100 fears in the middle of last season.



Then, United were in disarray, Ferguson hauled off Rooney with body language so cold he might have been delivering a death sentence and Ryan Giggs later told team-mates that he had never seen his team's commitment run quite so low. But if that seemed like the scene of the end of something, yesterday the impression was much more of renewal.



It was also a reminder that however low the flame of United flickers, the capacity for new momentum should never be forgotten. For some time now there has been the legitimate suspicion that the tide has been running against them. Paul Scholes and Giggs draw from the last of their reserves. Rio Ferdinand, having seen his international career trail away, now fights to maintain his old aura in league football. Evra revived himself with a brilliant, larcenous header in the shadow of big but inattentive Newcastle defenders, but many say he too is heading for the exit door.



Those were some of the prevailing presumptions when United sought to stifle the always potentially dangerous threat of Newcastle on their own soil yesterday but long before the end of it we had that old sense of a team who never seem to truly know when their game is over.



Ferguson may fret over the inconsistencies of his big goalkeeping investment De Gea, he may yearn for the old certainties of a team which virtually picked itself, but then he is also a man who long learned that the duty is to make the best of what you have.



He smiled broadly when asked to adjudicate over the question of whether young Cleverley was attempting to find the head of Van Persie or the back of the net when he settled the game in the second half. It could hardly have mattered less, he seemed to be saying. You take your gifts, especially ones that bring new life, however they come.