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Saturday, October 1, 2005
ESPNsoccernet: October 2, 2:10 PM UK
Life in the old dog yet

The Insider

FULHAM 2-3 MANCHESTER UNITED

All eras have a natural end and when it comes to passing reflections on Sir Alex Ferguson's triumphant reign at Manchester United, the history books are bound to be kind.

However, the curious thing about these dynasties is that they tend to come to an end when you least expect.

Bill Nicholson's legendary run as Spurs boss had a less than satisfactory finale, the same occurred for George Graham at Arsenal, while Maggie Thatcher is still smarting from her demise as Prime Minister. Long may the old dear smart!

A Manchester United team without Sir Alex Ferguson's domineering presence is impossible to imagine for many, yet as Soccernet's Insider made his way through the London transport maze, he pondered whether Fergie's final season as the Old Trafford Tsar is already underway.

After being booed by his own loyal army of followers last week, his frosty silence with the media of late stinks of an aging manager who has simply run out of enthusiasm to deal with the less savoury side of his job as his career draws towards a close.

Throw in the fact that his most influential performer of them all, Roy Keane, has signalled his intention to leave Manchester United this summer, plus the ongoing confusion over exactly what Malcolm Glazer and his family plan to do with their Premiership play thing, and it adds up to an obvious set of circumstances for Ferguson to bow out gracefully.

No one could ever accuse this veteran coach of being a quitter, but as the great Scot trudged across the pitch at this picturesque old ground to take his seat on the bench just a couple of minutes before 3.00pm, he didn't give off the vibe of a man with a spring in his step.

The romance of the Champions League clearly still gets his pulse racing, but a chilly afternoon on the banks of the Thames is a very different prospect and just two minutes into this game, the United manager must have wondered why he didn't take the option of staying at home and playing with his grandkids many years ago.

Brian McBride was involved in the build up for the goal, but the finger of blame can be pointed in the direction of United's floundering centre-back, Rio Ferdinand. The England man was first to ball and should have cleared the danger, but his hack away from goal crashed into Collins John's arm and complacency then took over.

While some referees may have given a free-kick, Ferdinand took a big risk as he waited for a decision and John took advantage of his lack of professionalism to lash Fulham into a shock lead.

Was it time to write the obituaries for a United side who dare not slip up again? Don't even think about it, as what was to be a classic match was only getting started.

Ferguson's decision to leave the out-of-form Paul Scholes out of his side in favour of Wayne Rooney may not have been a tough call, but his move to revert to a 4-4-2 formation was more significant.

His reluctance to employ this attacking line-up has infuriated United fans for many a season and the merits of their attacking intentions were quickly confirmed as they silenced the home fans with a stunning double brace inside 90 thrilling seconds.

Ruud van Nistelrooy's clinical penalty was quickly followed by a stunning finish from Rooney and as the second of those goals flew into the back of the Fulham net, it was hard to argue with those who voiced their frustrations at Ferguson's tactics following last Saturday's home defeat against Blackburn.

With Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung stretching Fulham down the flanks and the front two of Van Nistelrooy and Rooney looking a potent force up front, this was the United of old, and they could have added a third and fourth goal before they were stunned by a Fulham leveller.

Claus Jensen's free-kick was thrown into the penalty area and, without anyone applying a touch, the ball found it's way into the back of the net. The scores were tied at 2-2 in a game that was already developing into the best the Premiership had seen this season.

Van Nistelrooy made it 3-2 before the break as he converted Park's assist and you just didn't want this game to draw breath. All too often this season, Soccernet's Insider has found himself writing about ugly fans in the crowd or the disappointing quality of cuisine in the press room, but as the half-time whistle blew in this game, it provided a welcome break to the unrelenting drama.

Wednesday night's Champions League game between Liverpool and Chelsea provided those who claim the Premiership is little more than a tactical bore with all the ammunition they needed to condemn this league, but this game at Craven Cottage was a blast from a more glorious past.

To be honest, as long as Rio Ferdinand stayed on the pitch, United's defence was always likely to present chances galore to their opponents. The England man has an ability to look cool even when his world is falling in around him, but the truth was he had a nightmare against a fearless Fulham. To suggest Rio was a liability may have been going a little far, but he wasn't far off.

United's thrilling attacking play and Fulham's equally shaky defending covered up Ferdinand's flaws and in South Korean Park, Ferguson has signed a player who looks to be warming to the challenge of the Premiership. Signing players from the Far East is often viewed as a commercial plan, but this lad looks to have more about his than an ability to shift truck loads of shirts for the Glazer clan.

The second half was another thrilling affair and United held on with a degree of ease for the majority, but when Ferguson bizarrely switched to a 4-5-1 formation, Fulham were given a lift and started to apply pressure. Heidar Helguson wasted a late chance and we were denied the chance to quiz Ferguson on his desperation to play with one striker up front as he again dodged his post match press duties.

Instead, we all scrambled around the TV to get his views on a game that will live long in the memory.

'They got a break for the first goal, but we did show some slack defending at times,' admitted Ferguson. 'Still, I have to be pleased with the attacking side of our game. I felt at half-time it was a game that could have ended up at 20-all! Still, the second half was more normal and it is a good three points for us.

'Fulham have big strong lads up front and they caused us a few problems. There was a bit of slack defending in there at times and we'll have to look at it. We let in another goal straight from a free kick, but it can be difficult to control the modern balls as they swerve around so much.'

Fulham boss Chris Coleman took the positives from his side's display, but his flat body language may have revealed his true feelings.

'Maybe we scored too early,' he said, trying to muster a chuckle. 'To be fair, they scored some great goals, but they are always going to create chances against you.

'We needed to ride our luck a little and in the second half, they got men behind the ball and tried to hit us on the counter attack. Sir Alex has been criticised for the 4-5-1 formation in the last few weeks, but at times today they had four and five up. United were awesome at times and we have to keep believing.'

End of an era for Ferguson? That may have to wait as if Manchester United show as much invention as this for the rest of the season, those who chose to attack Ferguson at Old Trafford last weekend may just have a large helping of egg on their face come May.

They are not the finished article by any means, but the seeds of a very bright future are starting to shoot.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney

A fantastic goal and some brilliant play as he set up so many United attacking forays, Rooney is a class player who never fails to impress.

WHERE WERE YOU SVEN?: Soccernet's Insider has previously noted the apparent obsession the England manager has with Tottenham and he was watching them in action at Charlton once again today. It was good news for Rio Ferdinand whose place in the national team must be under threat if he plays like this.

HOW'S ZAT!: Fulham defender Zat Knight was allegedly left out of this game after an indiscretion with at Page 3 girl in a nightclub earlier this week. Not a good idea for a player eyeing a place in the England squad.

FOOD WATCH: It was hard to ascertain what filling the half-time sandwich contained and that is always a concern.

UNITED VERDICT: If Ferguson doesn't realise his side are better suited to a 4-4-2 formation after this game, old age may have kicked in and his senses may be fading. As an attacking force, United were irresistible at times and they will overwhelm better teams than Fulham this season if they continue in this vein.

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