Sunday, April 8, 2012
Scholes rolls back the years
Richard Jolly, Old Trafford
Attempting to provide statistical proof of supremacy in football is difficult, if not impossible. In a sport where context matters as much as the data, where open play makes every action different, the facts only form part of the argument. Yet if the figures are the ultimate arbiter, the most successful player in the Premier League is the artist, not the number cruncher.
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Paul Scholes' 12 games have produced 34 points, an average of 2.83 per game, a time in which Manchester United have gone from underdogs to unstoppable in the title race. Along with Wayne Rooney's controversial penalty, the third goal of his second incarnation as a United player saw off Queens Park Rangers. The recluse from retirement is talisman, lucky mascot and midfield fulcrum in one.
Comebacks are rarely as compelling. The age-old advice - "don't go back" - should normally be heeded by those whose reputation is glowing but whose legs are slowing. Scholes was right to ignore it. Another passing masterclass helped extend United's lead at the division's summit, after City's defeat to Arsenal later in the day, to eight points.
"We have only dropped two points since he came back into the fold," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "It was a typical Paul Scholes goal. The control of the game he has and the control of the tempo of our game he has have never changed. Great, great player."
His manager's admiration has been a constant, but the plaudits are belatedly arriving for the understated maestro. Scholes is getting the acclaim at 37 that he rarely did at 27. He exited to a standing ovation - the loudest applause that Rafael da Silva, substituted at the same time, may ever have received - while a former team-mate was treated rather less warmly by the Old Trafford crowd.
"Sparky, give us a wave," was the cheeky chorus that went unacknowledged. Indeed, it is a sign of Scholes' longevity that Mark Hughes, now in his 49th year, is an old colleague. The pair are neighbours in the list of United's all-time highest goalscorers. If Scholes, who chalked up his 153rd, is cherished rather more, it is because of the sense that he has remained true to himself and his club, unlike Hughes, the red turned blue.
Yet in an unhappy homecoming, amid complaints about injustice that he believes has become a theme of the season, Hughes' justified gripes about Shaun Derry's dismissal were not his most relevant remarks. More pertinent were the comments he made before kick-off: "At this stage of the season, there is a little bit of a sense of inevitability [about United]."
There is - an inevitability about their eighth successive win and a seeming inevitability about their 20th league title. With a commanding lead, with a week that features three matches against relegation-threatened opponents, with an aura that enables them to intimidate before they have even taken the field. Hughes was suitably affected to omit Joey Barton, one booking away from incurring a two-match suspension, and leave Bobby Zamora, who has been struggling with a virus, on the bench.
Rangers were intent upon limiting their losses even with 11 men, nine of whom camped around the penalty area protecting Paddy Kenny's goal. Even with a full complement of players, sole striker Jay Bothroyd was in a different postcode to his colleagues. Defeat loomed before they were depleted, rather contentiously.
Derry's tug on the advancing Ashley Young was slight but prompted the winger to lose his footing, but even without the question of whether Young dived came the reality that he had timed his run too early. "I have to say Ashley was a yard offside," Ferguson said. The assistant disagreed and kept his flag down then referee Lee Mason awarded a penalty, which Rooney converted comfortably, and dispatched Derry, the last man, from the pitch.
The veteran accepted it uncomplainingly, unlike his manager. "It is minimal contact - the boy has gone over too easily and the referee has bought it," Hughes said. "We are desperately disappointed with the performance of the officials." Indeed, were Roberto Mancini watching, it was a decision to irritate Manchester City managers past and present.
Yet if officials are doing United favours - and Fulham were denied a penalty at Old Trafford in the previous home game - this was an occasion when they seemed to need few. They were in the ascendant throughout, Scholes and Rooney trading wonderfully perceptive passes and their team-mates contriving not to score from them. When picked out by Scholes, Rafael was denied by a combination of Kenny and the bar. Found by Rooney, Danny Welbeck was thwarted by the goalkeeper.
Scholes provided the conclusive second goal, shooting from 20 yards with minimal backlift, real power and typical accuracy. "The second goal from Paul Scholes calmed everyone down," Ferguson said. "He's capable of that and should perhaps have been having more shots." The United manager argued his side should have tried their luck from distance more often, a theory that was almost justified when Michael Carrick's magnificent effort bounced back off the post.
This may be the finest of the playmaker's six seasons at Old Trafford but, in an afternoon that is a microcosm of his campaign, he was overshadowed by the old timer alongside him. Paul Scholes started scoring goals when Hughes was part of the United attack. Eighteen years later, he still does.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Paul Scholes. Retirement was clearly good for him. He has returned better and, if anything, fitter, not missing a league game since re-signing. His passing was excellent as ever and Scholes, who only struck once in his final full season at Old Trafford, is proving more prolific after a break from the game.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: The main criticism is that they were too profligate. Welbeck, in particular, mars fine performances with a difficulty in scoring and, when he did convert Antonio Valencia's cross, he was offside. But Rooney was excellent, Young posed problems by adopting a roving brief to dart between the strikers and Jonny Evans was an authoritative figure at the back. One block to deny Adel Taarabt was outstanding.
QPR VERDICT: It was a damage-limitation exercise and, in that respect, it was a success. "We were conscious of the fact we couldn't afford to concede a shedload of goals," Hughes said. With Bolton and Blackburn losing by three goals on Saturday, Rangers' goal difference has suffered less than their rivals'. The manager plans to appeal against Derry's red card and, with black humour, derived a positive when arguing the veteran will be fit for Wednesday's game with Swansea, if available, because he only played for 15 minutes. Taarabt, meanwhile, continues to divide opinion. The one visitor who looked capable of scoring, he also lost possession cheaply for Scholes' goal.