Last updated : 14 December 2006 By Ed

Oliver Kay in the Times

In two decades in charge of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson has seen great players come and go — some of his own creation — but when asked to pick out those who fall into the world-class category, he aimed for a famous five before eventually settling on a magnificent seven, a group that includes the emerging talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney but not Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, David Beckham or Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The omission of Beckham and Van Nistelrooy, both controversially sold to Real Madrid after falling out with the manager — and likewise Jaap Stam, who was hastily dispatched to Lazio after three championship-winning seasons — may spark debate among supporters, particularly given how Ferguson extolled their virtues when they were central to his plans. But the Scot does not hand out the “world-class” compliment lightly.

“In my time I've been blessed with several world-class players,” Ferguson said in an interview in the newly published Manchester United Opus. “[Peter] Schmeichel was certainly one. [Ryan] Giggs, for me, definitely. [Eric] Cantona could have been even better but for the parts of him you had to control. Rooney, that's four. And I think Ronaldo is going to be.

“He's playing in the hardest position, out wide, and never refuses to take the ball and attack players. He's two-footed, he's brave and once his decision-making improves, he'll be world-class. Then there's [Roy] Keane. That's six. And there's an argument for [Paul] Scholes, the cleverest midfield player we've ever had.

Ferguson's criteria are unclear. He makes no mention of Robson, who, even if he was past his prime by the time United began to win trophies under Ferguson, remained a world-class player throughout the late 1980s. Likewise Hughes, whom Ferguson brought back to Old Trafford from Barcelona in 1988 and who contributed greatly to United's breakthrough as a trophy-winning force in the early 1990s.

The inclusion of Rooney and Ronaldo, like Giggs and Scholes, hints at a technical appraisal — which may be part of the reason for Beckham's exclusion, given that Ferguson has described him as a more manufactured player — but Keane was no great technician.

Keane's presence on that exalted list at least proves that it is possible to fall out with Ferguson and retain his admiration, but four of the greats — Giggs, Scholes, Rooney and Ronaldo — are still at the club and have spent much of this season underlining their credentials.

Giggs, indeed, moved to joint second on United's all-time appearances list on Saturday — equalling the 688 games played by Bill Foulkes — with Ferguson suggesting that, even at 33, the Wales captain has much to offer the club.

“I can always sense the time when he is coming to the boil,” Ferguson said. “Like a lot of players who depend on speed and dribbling ability, they can't do it for long periods. But when he gets these pockets of form, he is absolutely devastating.