x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Paul Scholes returns in the midfield of dreams at Manchester United

It was a memorable return to midfield for Scholes, aptly against their arch rivals and in presence of Giggs, Beckham and Keane.

Paul Scholes’ game has never hinged on speed but deft skills with the ball, which the United midfielder, right, still has at the age of 37.
Paul Scholes’ game has never hinged on speed but deft skills with the ball, which the United midfielder, right, still has at the age of 37.

Increasingly, it is a fact of the music business that old bands don't retire. They reform.

The Etihad Stadium doubles up as a concert venue in the summer months and, five months early, it staged a reunion of sorts.

Together again in the same arena, if only for one afternoon, were arguably Manchester United's greatest midfield.

Collectively, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs peaked in 1999, not the second decade of the 21st century.

Yet with the exile in America adopting a watching brief in the stands and the combustible captain on punditry comeback, the other half of United's fab four took the field.

Scholes, whose shyness meant he was more rhythm section than charismatic frontman, completed an improbable comeback, lured away from the coaching staff to extend his playing days.

There were no more appropriate opponents for his second coming. United reclaimed control of the city, seeing out the final half-hour with the quintessential Mancunian footballer in their midst.

Virtually monosyllabic at times, there is no pretension about Scholes. Oldham's antidote to Beckham remained defiantly down to earth despite his huge talent.

It endeared him to the United faithful. They revelled in his return; whatever the footballing merits, it was a PR masterstroke after a week of defeats to Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United.

With Scholes strapped back in again, this was a nostalgia trip against today's greatest foe.

Whatever his exploits against others, he has a status as the regular scourge of City, scorer of two dramatic injury-time winners against them in the penultimate season of his first spell on the playing staff.

Last season's semi-final defeat was an inglorious farewell to derbies; this, despite an initial error that led to Sergio Aguero's goal, a more fitting occasion.

A Scholes mistake, an under-hit pass that James Milner intercepted, preceded an object lesson in retaining possession against 10 men. Visibly puffing, he retains his technical ability. Physical power was never his forte anyway but, at 37, he is an asset with the ball, an irrelevance without it.

Yet United's midfield maelstrom had required some left-field thinking. The re-emergence of Scholes was the strangest gambit, Wayne Rooney's positioning a move that Sir Alex Ferguson had made in the autumn aftermath of City's 6-1 win at Old Trafford. It was reprised here, Rooney dropping deeper while Danny Welbeck was the rangy runner alone in attack.

It was a move that paid dividends. Welbeck was excellent. Rooney scored on practically his first foray forward, adding a second after Costel Pantilimon had saved his initial penalty, but spent much of the match in his own half.

This was United's counter-attacking blueprint: safety in numbers in midfield to compensate for individual deficiencies. It worked, too, despite City's second-half comeback, which Ferguson attributed to his side's carelessness.

That underestimated Roberto Mancini's input, along with the sterling efforts of his troops. When David Silva was sacrificed at half-time following the sending off of Vincent Kompany, it seemed the Spaniard was being spared for Wednesday's Carling Cup semi-final against Liverpool. Instead, it was the unlikely catalyst for a comeback.

Mancini reconfigured his side, his nine remaining outfield players including five defenders and first one, then two defensive midfielders. It was counter intuitive, defence as the best form of attack, and it almost worked.

Recent derbies have been notable for late goals, some scored by Scholes, and this nearly produced another. It was such a response that Mancini emerged heartened about his side's title chances, comparing it with the capitulation of United's 10 men at Old Trafford.

But then these have become constant reference points for one another. In the long years where United's more meaningful games were against historic rivals such as Liverpool and Leeds United and whomever of Chelsea, Arsenal, Blackburn and Newcastle happened to be challenging for the title, taunting City qualified more as a pastime than a sport.

"This is how it feels to be City," they sang, adapting the lyrics of the Manchester band the Inspiral Carpets. "This is how it feels to be small."

In these heavyweight clashes, such sentiments sound quaintly outdated. City long aimed to ape United. But, with a 3-0 lead, the celebrating supporters had their own taste of City living, borrowing their rivals' Poznan dance.

It was not so much imitation as the sincerest form of flattery as one of the more brutal modes of mockery. Forty-five minutes and one remarkable fightback later, however, their emotions were of relief at the result while rejoicing at the return of Scholes.

sports@thenational.ae