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Magic 19 for Man United: How did it pull this off?

- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2011

PARIS (AP) - In keeping with a season in which it has made an art of winning the hard way, here's how Manchester United should collect the last point it requires Saturday to knock Liverpool off that famous perch that two decades ago looked unattainable.

United plays with half a brain for 45 minutes at Blackburn and goes two goals down. Alex Ferguson, as sharp at age 69 as freshly squeezed limes, conjures yet another cunning plan and rejigs his team in the second half (Ryan Giggs in goal, perhaps? After all, that's one of the few positions United's model veteran has not played this year). United scratches out the result it needs in the dying minutes, perhaps with a goal from the best bargain of the season, Javier Hernandez.

Not pretty, not terribly convincing, but so fitting.

The Premier League champions in all but name are not the most glamorous or most talented of the umpteen teams that Ferguson has barked, beaten and bullied into shape in the quarter-century that the soccer-holic Scotsman has worked week-in, week-out to overhaul Liverpool's mark of 18 league titles. His is a single-minded pursuit that would make weaker men blanch.

Which, in a way, also makes this team one of his best. Making diamonds shine is easy. Making gems of lesser stones takes a lot more elbow grease.

When a man has collected as many trophies as Ferguson has, it would be churlish to single out one or two as his greatest achievements.

Was Ferguson's league-FA Cup-European championship treble of 1999 more important than the 1990 FA Cup, his first trophy at United that helped him keep his job?

Were his clever buys like Cristiano Ronaldo and Hernandez more vital to United than Fergie's many fledglings _ think Giggs, the Neville brothers, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, et cetera _ that he polished into shape?

Also awesome is the way in which Ferguson has remained contemporary in a sport that has become an unruly beast since he took over at United in 1986. United owners have come, gone and come bearing debts. The 24-hour glare of media scrutiny is more intense than ever. Matches are now faster and more physical. Players have grown quicker, stronger and ever harder to manage as wages and egos have gone nuclear, with financial reason gone AWOL.

Yet Ferguson has stayed Ferguson: charming and rude, protective and prickly, gracious and fearsome, modern and mindful of tradition, a soccer ambassador who regularly and deservedly gets punished for being dastardly toward referees, a man who keeps megarich superstars like Wayne Rooney in their place by calling them "boy" and by not standing their "nonsense."

In short, it is the entire body of Ferguson's career at United, not this or that particular victory, that makes him such a giant.

Still, if forced to give a ranking, then up there among Ferguson's most impressive achievements would be making champions of this team that this season has looked as wobbly as Bambi on ice at times.

That has especially been the case outside of Fortress Old Trafford, where United is unbeaten. West Bromwich Albion, in a 2-2 draw on Oct. 16, is the only team to leave there with a point.

But this United team suffered travel-sickness easily, winning just five away games, drawing nine and losing four. If only away games counted, Arsenal would be lifting the trophy. United owes part of its 19th title to the fact that Arsenal and Chelsea played at times as if they didn't want it and because Manchester City's ambition has not quite matched the size of its big budget.

But how many times this season has United also been rescued by the must-have belief that Ferguson demands of all his players that they never give up before the whistle? When it was two goals down at Aston Villa on Nov. 13 but scored twice in the last 10 minutes? When Rooney scored a 15-minute hat-trick at West Ham on April 2 after United again went two goals down, forcing Ferguson into the gamble of switching Giggs to left-back, so he could bring on Hernandez? Or when United twice came from behind at Bolton on Sept. 26?

The class of 2011 may not prove to be a team that lives long in United legend like the 1999 treble-winners, especially if it is steamrollered by Barcelona in the Champions League final May 28.

But, like a sensible walking shoe that is not much to look at, over time it wins you over with its resilience. Rooney does not have the beguiling, must-watch appeal of a player like Eric Cantona. And he was repellent with his screaming, obscene outburst before a TV camera at West Ham. But the growth of his increasingly instinctive and dangerous goal-scoring understanding with Hernandez has been fascinating. So, too, has Giggs' renewed lease on life in midfield.

"Everyone has said this is not a good Manchester United team, that we are not this or that. But we have scored more goals than anyone else (in England)," Ferguson says. "Our home form has been magnificent. We are undefeated in Europe. We are in the Champions League final and we will win the league by getting one more point."

By any standard, not bad at all.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/johnleicester.

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