Who Can Fill the Paul Scholes Hole for Manchester United?
Suddenly, ‘Sir’ Paul Scholes is everyone’s favourite ice-cream flavour.
The United midfielder’s 128 goals in 541 games have earned him an eternal place in the Red Kingdom.
But that goal, 17 seconds from disaster against Manchester City at their ground too, has moved the dial of affection to 11 and made the love affair more passionate than the last night of a holiday romance.
The ginger genius is now held in such high esteem that some are even demanding his recall to England’s service, with the expectation that he will add to his 66 national team caps at this year’s World Cup in South Africa.
Sir Geoff Hurst, the hero of '66 was not winking exaggeratedly to journalists when he declared today that England’s chances would be enhanced by the 35-year-old’s laser passing and cold-eyed instinct to score goals.
"He's been fantastic in his last few games," Hurst told Sky Sports News. "Six or eight months ago I'd have said that he was only capable of playing every now and again because he'd struggle from a physical point of view, but he's been absolutely wonderful.
"He's been getting forward into the box, and he scored that late winner against Manchester City. I think there's a position for him."
Hurst should be forgiven for such hokum as he was only speaking in his capacity as national team cheer leader.
Scholes has put in some good shifts this year—especially at West Ham earlier in the season—but his form has generally been on the slide for two years.
The midfielder has revealed no public interest in abandoning his international retirement. Even though the South African winter climate would not play havoc with the Scholes sinuses, England duty would still leave the player bench bound, hoping to displace the cast-iron selections of a fit Lampard, Gerrard and Barry.
Would Scholes really leave his sacred family's embrace or indeed the sun lounger for a month of splinters?
However, Hurst does join a chorus of opinion-formers who are right to point to Scholes' improved form in “recent matches.” Against City and Spurs, Scholes was given the freedom of the midfield to spray passes long and short and maintain United’s momentum. it helped that he was put under very little pressure.
Wilson Palacios must still wake up sweating at 3 a.m., wondering just how he allowed a great first season in north London to be undermined by a failure to get closer to Scholes, which might have saved his team from going down to a 3-1 defeat.
City’s legions are still crying into their beers about the Scholes’ decisive late strike.
It is easy to see why Scholes’ trumpets do not mention the player’s display for United in the first leg of the Champions League quarter final against Bayern Munich. It was a performance so lacking in Scholes’ usual invention and tenacity, that he should wish us all to forget it and quickly.
There was little improvement when Scholes joined Ryan Giggs in a veterans-only central midfield partnership against Blackburn. No one was surprised by the lethargic United performance that ensued.
Here lies the problem which must obsess Sir Alex, if not England’s Fabio Capello. There is a Scholes-sized hole in United’s midfield which needs fixing if the team is to challenge the might of the Premiership and Europe where pride is placed in the winning of matches from the centre.
European finalists Inter Milan boast the mighty Wesley Sneijder. Bayern Munich, this year’s surprise European team, have the Stakhanovite water-carrier Bastian Schweistinger.
Barcelona can field Xavi, Toure, and Iniesta. Even serial flops Real Madrid can put out a side containing Alonso, the former darling of Merseyside and Kaka, an ex-World Player of the Year.
To whom can United turn?
To the emerging but perhaps doomed Darron Gibson, the creditable Darren Fletcher and the little-used returning crock Owen Hargreaves. They also retain the ghostly presence of the ‘Barcelona-traumatised’ Michael Carrick, where once there was the stellar Beckham, Keane, Giggs and Scholes quartet.
It is little wonder that the media has made a parlour game of being the first to identify the new Scholes.
It was supposed to be Djemba Djemba. That was until he played for United and everyone laughed before pinching their nose.
Then it was Anderson, until it became clear that the manager could not decide whether he was the new Paul Scholes or the new Darren Fletcher.
The Brazilian put an end to the indecision with a string of negligent displays and especially by going AWOL in last year’s Rome Champions League Final. This may have convinced many that the talented Anderson, now on his way back to fitness after a cruciate ligament injury, may lack the maturity to be United’s Mr Right Now.
And so, the search continues.
City’s emotional midfielder Stephen Ireland was on United’s wanted list last year.
Yoann Gourcuff’s Bordeaux showreel is said to be in Fergie’s Blue-ray disc player right now.
The Manchester Evening News would like fans to believe that United have been tracking Panathinaikos’ 20-year-old Greek midfielder Sotiris Ninis since the new year.
Persistent rumours also link United with a £15 million-plus-Michael Carrick move for the Spurs catalyst Luka Modric.
Sir Alex tickled the rumour mongers by setting out his admiration for the talented Croat in his programme notes for Spurs visit to Old Trafford last weekend.
“Luka Modric is playing out of his skin at the moment," he remarked of a player who cost Spurs £16.5m from Dinamo Zagreb in 2008.
Little more was needed to spark a stampede of summer speculation.
Modric is a fine player but the Sun newspaper splash may be a tall tale. Spurs do have Niko Kranjčar as an able replacement but it would surely be madness for Harry Redknapp’s team to keep selling its better players to United just as it appears capable of breaking the Big Four monopoly at the top of the Premiership.
After being taken to the cleaners by Spurs’ wily negotiators to the tune of £30.75 million when signing Dimitar Berbatov in September 2008, would Sir Alex really trust bringing in the latest hero of White Hart Lane who has prospered for just half a season?
In any case, Modric does not appear as a like-for-like Scholes replacement. In fact, there are few players who spring to mind able to match the United veteran’s unerring volleying power, the range of his passing skills and his ability to find space in the penalty area.
Sir Alex will look for the new Scholes for as long as he has sought out the new Keane and the new Giggs.
Even if such a player could be unearthed in the French league or is lurking deep in the Balkans or on the Iberian peninsula, Sir Alex would find himself competing for the players’ signature against other managers with deeper pockets and offering inflation-proof salaries.
Rather than construct the team on old memories of a marvellous player, the manager may have little choice but to bring a new template to the midfield.
Scholes, 36 next November, is not finished quite yet. Thanks to a new contract, he has another year to terrorise the middleweights of the Premiership and the make-weights of Europe and the Carling and FA Cup competitions.
He should be savoured as the sun sets on a great career.
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