Football: Ferguson expecting his big names to rise to big game

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FIVE weeks ago Alex Ferguson was asked whether he would prefer a draw when Arsenal met Chelsea at Highbury the following day. "No, I'd like an Arsenal win," he replied, leaving no doubts as to where he anticipated the greater challenge to come from.

The Manchester United manager was granted his wish but, as the landscape at the top of the Premiership has changed, so has the threat and he might regret it now. Arsenal beat Chelsea on 8 February and launched a charge which has taken them to within nine points of the champions with three games in hand.

A win at Old Trafford today and the one-horse title race that bookies had lost interest in will suddenly contain a stable of contenders. But if United win every one else will look to second place as the limit of their ambition and turf accountant's books shut all over Britain. Today's match is that important.

Ferguson, who is known to like a bet, concurs with that assessment and will be hoping his team revert to one character trait rather than indulge their inclination to, in his own words, "make things hard for ourselves".

"I think we're recognised as big game players and I confidently expect my team to be up for this one," he said yesterday. "They always are on these occasions. This is a big, big game, and if we win it I think it will just about clinch the title for us. We've only seven matches to go after this one and games are running out for our rivals. Of course, if Arsenal get a result it'll mean we're in for a cliff hanger."

"In fairness to us, we've performed in all the big games this season. We won at Liverpool, Chelsea and Newcastle and beat Blackburn at Old Trafford and even though we lost at Highbury in November we were denied a blatant penalty that day."

The match at Highbury has little bearing on today's match in the same way that the nuances of play had scant relevence to the changing scoreline in November. United began magnificently, Teddy Sheringham directing the traffic, and yet went 2-0 down. In the end Arsenal throughly deserved their 3-2 win, as Ferguson acknowledged, but both teams might have prevailed.

The main lesson learned could be that Arsenal can afford to surrender the midfield for long periods and still prosper, as they did against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park on Wednesday. "The way we played there is exactly what we'll need at Old Trafford," their manager, Arsene Wenger, said. "a mixture of high skill and typical Arsenal character."

Wenger has also said that a draw might prove to be a good result so the Gunners are unlikely to be going out with all barrels blazing, and any preference for the counter-attack will be aided by the absence of Nicky Butt, who tends to tidy things up in midfield.

The most influential absence, greater even than Ian Wright's, could prove to be Ryan Giggs. Without the Welsh winger opponents have been able to channel United towards the middle where big centre-backs have picked off long balls to Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole.

David Beckham might be the best crosser in the Premiership but he rarely gets outside his full-back on the right flank and with no real threat on the flanks there has been a predictability about their play in recent times. In their last eight games they have scored only seven times and gained only 11 points.

Arsenal have been predictable, too, but only in the number of games they have been winning recently.

"We have found our consistency again now and the spirit and quality in the side is as strong as ever," Wenger said. "We have had very many problems with injuries and suspensions but we have shown we can overcome them. For me, even quality is not enough unless you have spirit. And, above all, consistency is the main thing at the top level.

"There is a bit more pressure on United, but not enough yet. Two or three weeks ago the title was just a dream for us and people laughed when I said we could do it."

No one will be laughing if they win at Old Trafford today. Least of all Ferguson.

Race for the Premiership

P W D L F A W D L F A Pts GD

Man Utd 30 11 2 1 35 6 7 4 5 23 16 60 +36

Arsenal 27 10 2 2 29 9 4 7 2 17 17 51 +20

Remaining fixtures



Today Arsenal (H)

28 Mar Wimbledon (H)

6 Apr Blackburn (A)

10 Apr Liverpool (H)

18 Apr Newcastle (H)

27 Apr C Palace (A)

2 May Leeds (H)

10 May Barnsley (A)


Today Man Utd (A)

28 Mar Sheff Wed (H)

31 Mar Bolton (A)

4 Apr Liverpool (A)

11 Apr Newcastle (H)

13 Apr Blackburn (A)

18 Apr Wimbledon (H)

25 Apr Barnsley (A)

29 Apr Derby (H)

2 May Everton (H)

10 May A Villa (A)