United's reputation intact

Ronaldo's late strike was the 31st of a remarkable season but it might easily have brought parity rather than the three points which have strengthened Manchester United's hopes of retaining the title, writes Stuart James.

It is no surprise that Manchester United have such confidence in Ben Foster, although this was not supposed to be the afternoon when the goalkeeper demonstrated his ability. Further Derby County humiliation had been envisaged in the wake of their midweek mauling at Stamford Bridge but it was Sir Alex Ferguson's side who courted embarrassment here until Cristiano Ronaldo allowed the champions to escape with their reputations intact.

Ronaldo's late strike was the 31st of a remarkable season but it might easily have brought parity rather than the three points which have strengthened hopes of retaining the title. Having scored the only goal for Wolverhampton Wanderers against United four years ago, Kenny Miller must have felt as if he was travelling back in time when he tore clear in the 39th minute, only for his low, right-foot shot to be brilliantly turned away by Foster's outstretched left hand. It was Foster's second outstanding save in the space of 60 seconds, Mile Sterjovski having been denied moments earlier, and did much to dispel the theory that this might be an easy fixture in which to make his United debut.

It was an assured performance which may well unsettle Edwin van der Sar, currently out through injury, and the suspended Tomasz Kuszczak, but Foster says he does not expect to challenge either for a starting place yet. With more recovery time needed after a serious knee injury, which was diagnosed on England duty last summer, the former Stoke City 'keeper revealed that he expects to find a new home during the next two months.

"I've only been back from injury two weeks and I was delighted to get the game but I'm not looking to overtake the other guys," said Foster, who has enjoyed two successful loan spells at Watford. "If I was Edwin van der Sar or Tomasz Kuszczak and I was being kept out of the team I'd be very disappointed. I don't expect to be in the team. I may have to go out on loan for the rest of the season to play some games and then maybe next season it will be a different story."

There is certainly little doubt about his potential within Old Trafford. "We believe he is good enough to be England's No. 1," said Carlos Queiroz, United's assistant manager, who described the saves that denied Miller and Sterjovski as "crucial." The Portuguese added: "He has a great future ahead of him. We believe he is one of our best players and, when you are talking about one of the best players at Manchester United, you've got a great chance of playing for England."

That Foster was such a key figure here was indicative of the home team's improvement since their drubbing at Chelsea.

Robbie Savage's energy was often the catalyst as the midfielder, flanked by David Jones, another former United trainee, at last suggested he might have something to offer after a chastening start to his Pride Park career.

"I've been going home and reading stuff about myself," said Savage, "people saying that my legs are gone and I'm finished at this level, and I have been believing it. It's been dreadful. But I think today I proved I can still hack it at this level."

It will be a long time before Ronaldo faces similar questions even if he struggled to contain his frustration for 75 minutes here as the combination of bad luck, Roy Carroll's goalkeeping, poor finishing and the woodwork conspired against him. Persistence finally brought reward, however, when the Portuguese despatched Wayne Rooney's cross to leave Derby crestfallen and Arsenal playing catch-up in a title race which Ferguson described as "bubbling up very nicely."