Last updated : 06 May 2007 By Editor

To his eternal credit, Ferguson has now built four different teams since he succeeded Ron Atkinson in November 1986, with United 20th in the table, and he has won the league with each of them (assuming there are no farfetched slip-ups this time). The manager has always had a soft spot, and he doesn't have many of those, for the team that did the league and FA Cup Double in 1993-94, with the peerless Peter Schmeichel in goal, Paul Parker and Denis Irwin at full-back either side of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, the boiler room staffed by Paul Ince and Roy Keane and two flying wingers, Andrei Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs, servicing Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes.

That is probably still his favourite lineup today, despite the "you win nothing with kids" triumph of 1995-96 and the historic events of 1998-99, when United did the Double again and added the European Cup for good measure. Schmeichel, Irwin, Keane and Giggs were still around then, but Gary Neville, Jaap Stam and Ronnie Johnsen had taken over at the back, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt had emerged in midfield and the preferred strikers were Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, backed up by Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Fast forward. How does the present team compare with the alumni of 1994, 1996 and 1999? Not as favourably as some would like to think. Edwin Van der Sar is no Schmeichel - indeed his unreliability of late could see him displaced next season by England's Ben Foster, who is being recalled from his loan spell at Watford. Neville is as good as ever and today's centre-backs, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, have it in them to equal, if not surpass, the Bruce-Pallister partnership of fond memory.

It is further forward that the current team are found wanting. In midfield, as was all too aparent in the San Siro, there is no Keane to drive, cajole and lift the rest. In 1999, United were trailing 3-1 on aggregate to Juventus in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final in Turin when the inspirational Irishman ran up the skull and crossbones, swashbuckled the Italians to a standstill and emerged victorious through sheer force of personality. Last Wednesday, in similar circumstances, there was nobody to do the same. Keane, we can be sure, would never have allowed Gennaro Gattuso to dictate so decisively.

Scholes and Giggs are still around from 1999, and playing just about as well as ever, but aged 32 and 33 respectively they are increasingly prey to fatigue, which undermined them in midweek. Which brings us to the footballer of the year, Cristiano Ronaldo. The much-hyped "head to head" between Portugal's finest and Milan's Kaka was a one-sided nonevent, and our more impetuous pundits are premature in hailing Ronaldo as the best player in the world.

There is optimistic talk of another "golden generation" emerging from the youth team, runners-up in the Youth Cup this year, but don't hold your breath: nobody from United's last Youth Cup-winning side, in 2003, commands a place in the first team. No matter, the seniors may well suffice for another year in the Premiership. The European Cup, however, remains Ferguson's key to everlasting glory.