x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Ferguson's men are a team united

With fewer star names, Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United's title aspirations rely on the team fighting for each other on the pitch more than ever.

Wayne Rooney, centre, and Darren Fletcher, right, epitomise the solidarity and unity of the Manchester United players.
Wayne Rooney, centre, and Darren Fletcher, right, epitomise the solidarity and unity of the Manchester United players.

There are moments that explain why Manchester United are still unbeaten. They are moments that sum up the spirit of a club, moments utterly unconnected with ability but revealing of the resolve of the men from Old Trafford.

With United temporarily down to nine men in Sunday's stalemate at White Hart Lane and missing half of their defence when the sent-off Rafael da Silva was followed off the pitch by Nemanja Vidic, who needed treatment, Tottenham Hotspur sensed an opportunity.

Instead, sprinting back in the position the left-back might occupy to execute a perfectly-timed tackle in his own penalty area, Javier Hernandez, the sole striker, covered wonderfully.

That was a case of attack being the best line of defence. In the 95th minute, the transition from back to front was, in its own way, similarly startling. Ryan Giggs hooked a clearance from his own penalty box. Seconds later, the 37-year-old appeared 90 yards away to try to set up Wayne Rooney for an injury-time winner. He did not quite succeed, but that is not the point.

To some, United are the inexplicable Invincibles. But their long undefeated run is understandable. It is a question of mentality, not quality.

As Harry Redknapp said, the men from Manchester were a more frightening prospect when Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo illuminated their forward line.

Indeed, the Tottenham manager provided common sense analysis both before and after the game. Though they are the sort of comments that could be presented as provocative, they were underpinned by sound logic.

On Sunday he argued that it would be astonishing if United completed the campaign without being beaten; on Friday he had said that he has players Sir Alex Ferguson would love to manage.

In Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart and Gareth Bale, three names spring to mind. But what United do possess is Ferguson's fighting spirit, augmented by excellent organisation. This is a side with character and resourcefulness, where players take responsibility.

None more so than the formidable Vidic, who reinforced his reputation as the division's leading defender with a masterpiece of resilience at White Hart Lane.

Since the Serb was reunited with Rio Ferdinand, United have had the Premier League's meanest defence. It is no coincidence.

Rafael's dismissal was rough justice but United's reaction was impressive; Darren Fletcher slotted in solidly in his place.

Even with 11 men, Rooney had already been dropped into midfield, just as he was against West Bromwich Albion earlier this month.

The classic United teams played 4-4-2, surging forward at will. By adding a fifth man in midfield, Ferguson made the tacit admission that United are not the all-conquering force they were.

Yet they have adopted the old-fashioned approach to taking the title: win at home, draw away. It is a formula that, if reproduced completely, would produce only 76 points; insufficient to top the table normally, it may be enough now. Indeed Ferguson's men seem to follow it a little too literally at times, taking three points only at Stoke City and West Brom.

However, they have navigated trips to two title rivals, in Manchester City and Tottenham, without conceding; do likewise at Chelsea and Arsenal and survive the hostility of Anfield and they can expect to join the Preston North End side of 1888/89 and Arsene Wenger's class of 2003/04 in an elite trio of teams who were never overcome.

It would indeed be a marvel because, by their own lofty standards, this is not a United side littered with greats. But it is very much a team.


Derby day turned into draw day in the Premier League with honours ending even on Merseyside and in both the west Midlands and the Northeast.

But the Second City clash was very much the anomaly in one respect: while Anfield and the Stadium of Light were packed, there were almost 8,000 empty seats at St Andrews for Aston Villa's visit.

For Birmingham City, that lends itself to a depressing conclusion.

The fans they do have are vocal and, at times, funny, but if they can't sell out for the biggest game of the season, when can they?


Asamoah Gyan's unwitting injury-time equaliser for Sunderland may have been cruel on Newcastle United, but it represented respite for one Geordie. Steve Bruce set off on a sprint along the touchline, delighted to avoid a double defeat to the team from Tyneside this season.

Given the progress Sunderland have made, it would have been a shame had the campaign been remembered locally for two derby defeats.


In a division that has a top five teams and then, in an ever changing order, the rest, the carrot of European football is being dangled before some unlikely suspects.

Tony Pulis is too cautious to get carried away but, with 30 points, Stoke City are already safe. Saturday's 2-0 win over Bolton had the dual benefit of depriving a potential rival for a top-seven finish of victory. Stoke in Europe? It sounds surreal, but it can't be discounted.