Ferguson may hold key to England's hopes
Sir Alex Ferguson has twice turned down the chance to become England manager, but he still holds the key to the nation winning the World Cup in South Africa.
Sir Alex has to knock into shape both Rio Ferdinand and Michael Owen in time for the summer's tournament. Otherwise, England might find it tough to go all the way.
The Laird of Old Trafford won't, though, be doing his bit for England's cause. He needs to sort out Ferdinand and Owen if he has any hope of retaining the championship for the fourth year in a row, and that is what will motivate him to sort out the problems dogging the centre-half and the striker.
The Scot won't actually be too concerned about England's chances, if at all. But United's season could hinge on the form and fitness of both Ferdinand and Owen.
Ferdinand's latest lapse for England will worry Fabio Capello as England suddenly have become suspect in defence.
Skipper John Terry has now become unmovable in the heart of the defence, and his leadership qualities are unsurpassed. But where has the wealth of defensive stoppers gone? One-kneed Ledley King is a colossus for Spurs, but cannot be risked in a tournament when the games come thick and fast while his Spurs team-mate Jonathan Woodgate is as big an injury risk. Matthew Upson and Joleon Lescott are fine club centre halves, but not quite at the highest international level. Really, would you want these guys facing Brazil?
But alongside the Chelsea and England skipper, first-choice Ferdinand, a player who can cope with the best and who becomes better when the level is raised, is suffering the kind of wobbles he became synonymous with in his early days at West Ham.
Sir Alex eradicated them at Old Trafford after paying £30m for his services, but Ferdinand needs to be shaken out of his present lapses of concentration. In addition to his Ukrainian mishap, Ferdinand was also at fault for one of Holland's goals in August's 2-2 draw in Amsterdam, while he was left for dead by Craig Bellamy in the build- up to Manchester City's third equaliser during last month's pulsating derby clash at Old Trafford.
There might be some logical explanations: a player who has lived in the fast lane for too long, who has become too comfortable with his wealthy life style. But there is a World Cup coming up, and Ferdinand's last chance to make a real impact on the biggest stage.
Somehow I doubt whether he will relinquish that opportunity before it is too late. So my gut feeling is that Sir Alex will make sure he concentrates harder in the remaining few years of his life span at the highest level of his career.
The same applies to a player Sir Alex picked up on a free transfer, when it seemed England's current top goalscorer was heading off to Hull from Newcastle.
Still dogged by injuries, Owen needs to convince Capello he can survive a full summer tournament, and that will take some doing. The solution is a long run of games in United's attack, and that will only happen if he regains his fitness first, and then the kind of poacher's instinct that will never leave him, as he showed in the Manchester derby.
With so many United players still in the England set up, Capello will be relying on Sir Alex more than anyone else in the Premier League.
Sir Alex would need to find a way back for Owen Hargreaves before the Canadian-born midfield anchor man can be expected to make the England squad, let alone team, for South Africa
Michael Carrick is an attacking midfield alternative to Gareth Barry, but again Carrick is not an automatic choice for Sir Alex, who will also need to continually remind Wayne Rooney that while he needs to retain his cutting edge, he cannot afford to step over he mark of acceptability.
Of all of Sir Alex's charges, Rooney is the real jewel in the crown, and if he is honed to perfection come this summer, then the rest of the world had better look out.
But who should partner him in attack? Emile Heskey has seen better days, and Carlton Cole is not quite the finished article, but Capello likes a big target man, and you can see why, as it brings the best out of Rooney. But there has to be a place for an out-and-out goalscorer, and Owen is still that finished article ahead of Jermain Defoe, if he can put the clock back...and no one knows how to manipulate time more than Sir Alex.