Soccer: Please Santa, protect Ruud from any injuries

TO QUOTE that master foot-mouthist Samuel Goldwyn: this Christmas is like déjà vu all over again.

How many times have I sat here in December and thought to myself: "Blimey, this has been a boring season so far. Thank goodness Manchester United provides such a soap opera off the pitch, or else we'd never have anything to talk about down the pub."

That applies in spades this year.

Recently, I had to compile a 'top 10 highlights of the season so far' feature for United's match programme and, boy, was it a struggle.

The temptation was simply to whack down 10 Nistelrooy goals and be done with it: where would we be without him? The main item on my Xmas wish list is obvious please, oh Santa, protect Ruud from injury for the rest of the season.

I know we shouldn't complain. We are top of the Premiership and into the knockout stages of the Champions League; we've beaten hated rivals Liverpool, Leeds and City; we've seen pleasing starts to Old Trafford careers by newbies Howard, Kleberson and Djemba Djemba.

Yet I struggle to nominate any match I will be including on my videotape of Noughties highlights.

Our win at Tottenham last weekend provides a perfect microcosm of 2003. Spurs don't have a single player who would make our squad, let alone our team, nor did they ever look like beating us, despite the fact that we were playing at 50% capacity.

Lots of matches like this loom ahead over the next few months the Premier League is basically three good teams and 17 makeweights. How I yearn for the days of 1992-95 when so little could be taken for granted, when the small-time likes of Villa, Norwich and Blackburn could threaten our incipient hegemony.

At the time, we fans used to dream about achieving proper domination but, as the Chinese say, be careful what you wish for as it may come true. Now that we, Arsenal and Chelsea tower so embarrassingly above the rest as I predicted here back in August would be the case we find that it's a hollow triumph.

I'm just grateful that there's plenty of smart European operators out there who are likely to give us some proper tests and real contests in the spring.

In such a situation, then, we have even less excuse to be going about our business so tediously, so often lacking in imagination and flair.

Poor Ronaldo is getting some stick for his waywardness at the moment, but at least he does threaten to inject some real life and verve when he comes on.

Credit too for Ryan Giggs, who I flagged up here a few weeks ago as someone who was stepping up a gear and becoming the player he always threatened to be.

He was excellent on Sunday and, hamstring allowing, is on course to become a European sensation again next spring just as he was in Turin last season. Solskjaer, when he returns, will bring his own magic too, of course.

And there's always Scholes, now recognised as our greatest non-Dutch, non-Cork player.

In fact, when you think about it, there's enough players on our staff to provide the excitement we crave so why do we see so little of it? Is it the fault of the European-style tactics and deep-lying patience that Alex has dictated for us?

Probably. And his likely answer to such criticism is a good one: "Well, do youse ungrateful so-and-sos want to win the European Cup again or not?" A fair point. All I can say is this: can we win it the United way, rather than the Liverpool-of-the-80s way?

After all, we did it in '99 largely by going all-out and taking risks, didn't we? Granted, we stole the final but ironically that was the one match where we abandoned our previous gung-ho tactics and played it safe, wasn't it? And look what almost happened: we could have been 3-0 down by the hour-mark that night.

Still, we don't know what Fergie's got for us in his New Year goodie bag yet. Perhaps that'll provide the mid-season spark, Cantona-style, that we lack.

At the time of writing, fat Leeds grump Viduka heads the most-likely list with the suddenly very keen Saha of Fulham challenging nearby. Young Milner at Leeds is a dark horse too he's tellingly just signed up to Alex's son's football agency.

And if we are disappointed by the final transfer window haul, we have plenty of other delights to keep us amused, I suppose: the continuing decline of Liverpool, the possible bankruptcy of Leeds and the ever-hilarious goings-on at Wastelands, where the denizens are wondering who'll get the sack first, Keegan or Santa.

Lurking behind all these considerations are the three beasts that might yet blow everything else out of the water.

Firstly, a possible take-over attempt, which City sources tell me may only be weeks away. Secondly, some giant scandal involving Fergie that results from certain leaky locations in Ireland. The controversy over the Dublin leukaemia dinner is, I suspect, just the first of many such blows to come.

And thirdly, the ongoing Rio Ferdinand affair, which is taking on an alarming momentum of its own and may yet cause a seismic institutional confrontation the likes of which United have not known since the 'Outcast' days before the Great War.

I hear rumours about what's to come on this that you simply would not believe. Heigh-ho: have a merry Xmas, fellow Reds, if you can after reading all that.

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