looks at Sir Alex Ferguson's shock decision to bolster his midfield by bringing Paul Scholes out of retirement.
Last Updated: 09/01/12 4:22pm
Sir Alex Ferguson may have succeeded where Fabio Capello failed, but it remains to be seen whether the decision to lure Paul Scholes out of retirement proves to be the latest masterstroke from the Manchester United manager or a misguided attempt to bolster his midfield with a player past his prime.
Scholes, in his pomp, had very few rivals to his talent in England and could even lay claim to being one of the finest of his generation in world football - although the publicity-shy and always humble midfield maestro would never accept such plaudits.
Anyone who has seen the diminutive genius in action in the flesh should count themselves very fortunate, with the effortless ease in which he brought the ball under his spell before selecting the best pass - short, long, incisive, defensive - all finding their target with unerring accuracy.
And it was such a waste of an undoubted talent that Scholes earned just 66 caps for his country before deciding to bid farewell to the Three Lions in 2004, with a desire to prolong his club career the stated aim, although frustration at being forced into duty on the left flank while various managers continued with their blind faith in the unworkable Frank Lampard-Steven Gerrard partnership must have contributed.
England's loss was clearly United's gain, with Scholes going on to remain an important member of the Old Trafford squad in the following seven seasons - with his contribution reflected by Capello's failed bid to tempt him back into the Three Lions fold for the 2010 World Cup - comfortably surpassing 30 appearances in each campaign, bar the 2005/06 term which was truncated by a serious eye problem.
But there are reasons why Scholes, who turned 37 on the 16th November, elected to turn down Ferguson's offer of a one-year extension this summer, admitting at the time to Sky Sports News: "I was struggling a little bit in my legs even with training and playing games, they didn't feel great and I just felt the time was right."
The intervening period will have done little to improve his self-confessed waning physical condition - which is admittedly admirable for a man of his years and a testament to the professionalism he displayed since signing on the dotted line with United in 1993 - regardless of his return to training at the Red Devils' Carrington complex in recent weeks.
But Ferguson has felt compelled to bolster his ranks after losing Darren Fletcher for the foreseeable future to a chronic bowel complaint, seeing Tom Cleverley's early-season breakthrough knocked back by surgery on his ankle with summer signing Ashley Young also on the treatment table due to a knee injury.
The Scot's concerns in the centre of the park are compounded by a number of injuries to his defensive ranks which have seen both Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia forced to drop back to perform emergency duties in recent weeks.
What must be even more worrying is the chronic lack of creativity which has afflicted United at times this season, with the UEFA Champions League exit at the hands of Basel and the Premier League setbacks against Blackburn and Newcastle highlighting why Ferguson was linked with playmakers such as Samir Nasri and Wesley Sneijder over the summer.
In dismissing media speculation that a shock January bid for Frank Lampard was in the offing, Ferguson - who is always partial to a game of smoke and mirrors with the media - added: "What can you get in January? I've said this many times now. The players we'd like we can't get. If the alternative is to sign a second-rate player, we don't want to do that."
Clearly, Ferguson does not regard the Salford-born veteran as someone who has slipped below the staggeringly high standards he set for himself throughout his career, with the statistics of his comeback performance demonstrating he still understands the importance of treasuring possession.
|Minutes On Pitch||30|
|Shots On Target||1|
|Shots Off Target||0|
|Pass Completion %||97%|
|Passes in final third||18|
|Pass Completion in final third %||100%|
But of those precious few misplaced passes, one led to City's second goal through Sergio Aguero which gave all those of a Blue persuasion in the Etihad Stadium renewed hope of producing a comeback which would have been as improbable as it was unexpected, while another set the opposition on a counter-attack which, fortunately for Scholes, came to nothing after his attempted cross-field pass was some distance away from the intended recipient.
A level of rust is to be expected after seven months away from the cut-and-thrust of top-flight football in England, and there was just a hint of showmanship from Ferguson's decision to push Scholes into the fray shortly before the hour mark on Sunday, particularly with Park Ji-sung and Anderson sat alongside him on the bench.
But at that stage even Roberto Mancini seemed to have accepted the game had gone, a stance demonstrated by his decision to remove creative talents David Silva and Adam Johnson at the interval with defensive duo Stefan Savic and Pablo Zabaleta joining the fray. The forthcoming Carling Cup semi-final clash with Liverpool was clearly on the Italian's mind, along with ensuring swift revenge for their 6-1 success at Old Trafford in October could not be achieved.
Despite City gaining unexpected impetus from Scholes' uncharacteristic slip, United were able to hold out and book a fourth round meeting with Liverpool, with Ferguson typically bullish post-match in claiming there were 'no negatives' over the schemer's decision to come out of retirement.
And it must be hoped he still holds that belief come May, as it would be a genuine travesty to see memories of Scholes' superb career saddled with the unwelcome footnote of an ill-advised return.
United fans can expect his fitness to improve, the first touch will become more assured and there is enough from Scholes' past achievements to demonstrate that he can contribute to a degree in the present and future. But hoping for him to be the same dominant player of years gone by is surely a step too far.