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Aug 16, 2010

Sublime Scholes in a class of his own

He may be preaching to the converted, but Sir Alex Ferguson's programme notes are instructive nonetheless. They tend to be scrutinised for the insights the Manchester United manager is otherwise reluctant to reveal. The start of the season can be the time for a state-of-the-nation address and Ferguson obliged.

• Fergie hails superb Scholes

He talked about the future; not his own, of course, but the potential heirs to Old Trafford's other ageing greats. He is hopeful, he said, that Antonio Valencia and Nani can compensate for the eventual departure of Ryan Giggs; rather more optimistically, he mentioned Tomasz Kuszczak and Ben Amos as reasons why Edwin van der Sar's 40th birthday is not cause for panic. And the next Paul Scholes?

It is tempting to call that the $64,000 question. In reality, it may be the £20- or £30-million problem. "Replacing Paul Scholes is more difficult, even impossible, but we do have players at the club capable of responding to that challenge," his manager said. The initially downbeat verdict appears more accurate than Ferguson's vague conclusion. Quite who those unmentioned players are is another matter: Michael Carrick was signed to be the principal passer, but his game has regressed as Scholes' appears enhanced. The passing of time seems less of an issue for a distributor of his class.

And as a 16th successive season began with Scholes in the United side for the opening game, a smooth start was ensured. Newcastle have not won at Old Trafford since 1972 - or, to put it another way, two years before Scholes' birth - and while the reclusive maestro extended an enviable record, the Tynesiders added to a rather less impressive statistic. Dimitar Berbatov, Darren Fletcher and Giggs decided the game but Scholes ran it.

Perhaps a playmaker's greatest skill is applying the correct weight to a pass. It was something Scholes demonstrated when providing Berbatov with the opener. "A great pass," said Ferguson. The full repertoire - inside of the boot, outside of the foot, short and long - was in evidence, as it was in the Community Shield.

His judgment only deserted him once (on the ball, anyway) when an attempt to ping a pass to Berbatov drew a furious reaction from the slighted Wayne Rooney. The rather more understated Scholes responded with an apologetically raised hand. He and Rooney did link up, delightfully, in a move that should have brought Berbatov a second goal; the Bulgarian slid his shot past the far post. A timeless combination with Giggs more than compensated, the winger volleying in the midfielder's chipped pass.

"He's just a master of his trade," Ferguson said. "His passing range and his awareness of play is marvellous. He showed at his age you don't lose what he's got. He's still got the appetite to play. Last season was his first season without injury for a long, long time. That's the key to Paul: stay fit and he can play like that."

Neither supply line nor supplier could be halted. Without seeming to move at any real speed, his immediate opponent, Kevin Nolan, couldn't get close to Scholes; whatever the official description of the Newcastle captain's position, 'no man's land' seemed to cover it.

The inevitable caveat has to be added: Manchester United's first yellow card of the season had a predictable recipient. Scholes was both sinner and sinned against, however, former team-mate Alan Smith felling him with a challenge so late it appeared to have come from Oldham's most famous fan's handbook and which strangely didn't bring a booking.

It made for a tough return to Old Trafford for Smith. Newcastle, like plenty of past visitors, were comfortable for half an hour, but then soon behind. After Antonio Valencia hassled Jonas Gutierrez out of possession, Scholes located Berbatov who drilled a shot past Steve Harper. Then a neat alliance of Nani and Patrice Evra resulted in the Frenchman crossing. Rooney's poor piece of control worked in his side's favour, Fletcher turning to score in predatory fashion.

Rooney did have the ball in the net, though the flag had long been raised. It means that, four months and 18 days since his last official goal, his wait continues. Indeed it was an occasion when Berbatov outshone his strike partner.

His idiosyncrasies are well known, but the two men in the No. 9 shirts were contrasting figures. The Bulgarian's silken touch and Andy Carroll's brute force suggested it was the ballerina in one attack and the boxer in the other.

Carroll spurned a fine chance to put Newcastle in front, heading wide, but made his presence felt. "He has an incredible aerial power," added Ferguson. Nemanja Vidic is unlikely to encounter too many more physical opponents this season and, if Carroll's methods may get him into trouble, it is worth remembering that a former centre forward who was reputed to have razor-sharp elbows has had a lengthy career in the game. And he is the Manchester United manager.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Paul Scholes - Another masterclass from the veteran, who has been the best player on the pitch in both games he has played this year.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Scholes stood out, but there were encouraging displays from Berbatov and Nani in a composed team display. Ferguson has not named an unchanged team for more than two years but there must be the temptation to change a recent habit at Craven Cottage on Saturday.

NEWCASTLE UNITED VERDICT: They avoided the fate of the other promoted side to visit title contenders, West Bromwich Albion, and if 3-0 wasn't particularly respectable, it wasn't embarrassing either. Chris Hughton's side appeared organised enough to suggest they can keep clean sheets against lesser sides, but their lack of pace is a hindrance.

THE LIFE OF RYAN: Giggs maintained his extraordinary record of being the only player to score in every Premier League season. Until Sol Campbell debuts for Newcastle, he is the only man to appear every year as well.

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