MANCHESTER UNITED should be a club struggling to survive. Their elderly manager (right) has been in charge for 23 years and is always in trouble with referees. They are owned by penny-pinching American clock makers called Glazer. The News of the World claims today they paid 287 different companies a total of £94million over two years, quite apart from sorting the players' exorbitant salaries. And, right now, their defence is missing Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Wes Brown, Gary Neville, Jonny Evans and Edwin van der Sar.
But this weekend they moved to within two points of Chelsea at the top of the Premier League with an emphatic 4-0 win at West Ham inspired by Paul "I want to retire" Scholes. And that pensioner Sir Alex Ferguson, in charge for his 1,300th game, was all smiles after playing Patrice Evra as an emergency centre-back and grinning: "He's the smallest centre-half in the world but I would have no problems using him there in Europe this week."
United have already qualified for the knock-out stages of the Champions League of course. And while Chelsea and Arsenal crashed out of the Carling Cup this week, Fergie's fledglings surged into the semi-finals.
It just doesn't make any sense. Fergie should be writhing in discomfort, beset by injuries, foreign ownership, a dodgy hip and rich rivals. Instead, he's on top of the world and heading, after Chelsea's dramatic 2-1 defeat at Manchester City yesterday, for a successful Premier League title defence.
Year after year the Red Devils over-achieve, while Chelsea (new manager, sugar-daddy owner, hardly any injuries) slip in strange places - their goalkeeper Petr Cech did them no favours in at Eastlands and neither did Frank Lampard, who missed his first penalty in 22 attempts going back two seasons. City should have been pegged back to an eighth successive draw, instead they helped rivals United close that gap emphatically.
Arsenal (younger manager, well-run club, a few injuries) recovered from their devastating trio of defeats against Sunderland, Chelsea and Manchester City with a 2-0 win over Stoke but are a distant eight points behind the leaders. And anyone who saw Emmanuel Eboue's incredible goal-line deny his captain Cesc Fabregas knows Arsene Wenger's men remain in disarray. Only Andrei Arshavin, beavering away on his own up front, shows any real spark. With Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner injured and Eduardo and Carlos Vela not up to the job, Wenger should have bought a replacement for Emmanuel Adebayor up front.
While Fergie was replacing Cristiano Ronaldo with the quality of Antonio Valencia, Wenger did nowt. While United blend Ryan Giggs and Scholes with the up-and-coming Darron Gibson, Arsenal and Chelsea sell off their young academy players and keep faith in moderate foreign youngsters. Perhaps now we are starting to see why United do it year after year.
And then there's Liverpool. Held 0-0 at Blackburn yesterday, they thought Rafa Benitez would be their Ferguson, the man to restore Anfield to the Euro-dominating Shankly/Fagan/Dalglish heights they reached 30 years ago. But that incredible early Champions League success in Istanbul proved a fluke. They are now 12 points off the top in seventh, leaving Manchester City, Aston Villa and Spurs to threaten their annual place in the top four.
Villa, who can perhaps claim Martin O'Neill has all the attributes of a young Fergie, crushed Hull 3-0 to maintain their top six form. But the main image at Villa Park was the tearful reaction of Jimmy Bullard, their record £5m signing from Fulham, to his latest knee injury. Meanwhile his old club continue to thrive under my old boss "Woy" Hodgson and Spurs failed to move past rivals Arsenal in third when they were held 2-2 by Everton. Ironically, American Tim Howard, Manchester United's old No1 sold off by Fergie, saved the late Jermain Defoe penalty which would have won it for Spurs.
Elswhere, Portsmouth and Wolves both produced their third wins of the season against Burnley and Bolton while Birmingham are looking secure in their top-flight status after a 3-2 win at inconsistent Wigan.