LONDON: Manchester United can close in on their record-extending 20th league title on Sunday if they win at home to an Everton punctured by their FA Cup exit, whatever Manchester City may achieve the same afternoon away to relegation-bound Wolves.

Key factor in United’s reclaiming of their primacy has been the return from premature retirement of Paul Scholes. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson prefers to lavish praise – when due – on his team rather than on individuals. But with Paul Scholes it is different. That is appropriate.

Scholes has played only since January so he can not, in all conscience, lay claim to any of the various “footballer of the year” (i.e. full season) titles.

Yet . . . United have taken 37 points from a possible 42 since kicking off the 3-2 win at Manchester City in January, the moment 37-year-old Scholes came out of retirement.

He has scored three goals in 13 appearances in the Premier League to take his all-time total to 105 in 480 games for his only professional club.

But it is not the goals which measure the value of Scholes in United’s season and the title duel with their ‘noisy neighbours’ but their five-point lead at the top of the table. His experience, his command, his steadying influence on younger team-mates have all played a role not necessarily obvious from the stands.

Ferguson understands the value of Scholes. He said: “Every game he plays you can see how he controls a game and how he controls the tempo of a game. That has never changed, down the years. At 37, he is still capable of that. He is a great player and integral to what has happened over the past few months.”

Scholes made his United debut in 1994, a ‘football child’ of the Beckham/Neville/Giggs generation. After 17 years and 24 major trophies he retired at the end of last season and took up a coaching role. In January, however, his frustration at not playing and United’s
midfield injury crisis led him to walk back into the dressing room and into the team. Even his team-mates had no idea Scholes had changed his mind until he walked back into the dressing room.

This decision, he has no doubt, was the right one. The player once praised to the skies by the likes of Xavi, Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane, says: “Coaching was OK but it wasn’t anything like playing. I was still coming in every day and seeing the players. It was difficult
to adjust. I really missed playing so, at Christmas, I went to see the manager.”

Scholes found a sympathetic listener in Ferguson. After all, his manager had once decided – famously – to retire and then changed his mind.

Whether Scholes will continue playing next season remains open to question but his team-mates want him to carry on. He might even make an England comeback at Euro 2012. Scholes retired from his 66-cap England duty, preferring to spend more time at home with his family, after Euro 2004. He even turned down a request from Fabio Capello to
play in South Africa in 2010.

But England will go to Poland and Ukraine in crisis because the manager – whoever he may be – will have been in the job only a matter of weeks. It worked out for United so why not for England too?

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