Ferguson turns up the pressure on Keegan

Manchester United's victory over the leaders means football's title race is now a test of character, says Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
"You have to earn the right to be a champion," Alex Ferguson said after his Manchester United team had beaten Newcastle on Wednesday.

He was right, but it also sounded suspiciously like the Manchester United manager was beginning the psychological battle which is so much a part of a modern title campaign.

Last year his word games so needled Blackburn that even the mild-mannered Tim Flowers was provoked into a response to his calculated barbs about "pressure". Rovers did go on to win the title, but only just. Their closing record of seven points from six games was hardly championship form and, had Manchester United taken their chances at West Ham on the final day, the title would have remained at Old Trafford.

The previous year Blackburn had closed a 15-point lead, only to find the effort left them unable to pass Manchester United. Two years earlier United had themselves let slip a nine-point lead to Leeds.

Those examples underline that seven points, Newcastle's current lead over Manchester United, is a slim cushion with 18 games to go. Even so, only Arsenal in 1989 of the last eight champions have not been leading the table on New Year's Day - so history remains on Newcastle's side.

Their away form is a problem, although between now and 2 March, when Manchester United visit St James' Park, they have only one difficult trip, to nearby Middlesbrough on 10 February.

Equally worrying is the loss of Keith Gillespie, so crucial a part of Newcastle's gameplan. He is unlikely to return from the ruptured thigh tendon he suffered on Wednesday much before that March match. With Ruel Fox now at Tottenham Kevin Keegan's options are limited, especially as Scott Sellars, who could have gone on the left with David Ginola switching wings, has just moved to Bolton.

It would not be a surprise if Keegan spent to fill the gap, especially as rumours persist that Gillespie has not settled on Tyneside. After spending pounds 14m in the summer, this season has a win-or-bust feel about it for the Magpies. Manchester United, by contrast, are in a transitional season - that they are challenging so strongly is a bonus.

It remains to be seen if their young players can sustain their performance. Much relies upon Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona maintaining fitness, form and availability.

Their win will also give renewed hope to the other contenders, notably Liverpool, whose form is returning after a bad November; Tottenham, who are having a good run and acquiring the unfamiliar sobriquet of "hard to beat" - and Arsenal, who will soon have Dennis Bergkamp back.

The likelihood remains that the champions will be Manchester United or Newcastle. The latter are favourites. They seem invincible at home, they have the resources to buy if their challenge continues to falter, and they are not over-reliant on one man - although Peter Beardsley is still the key influence.

But do they have the "bottle"? Manchester United and Blackburn both won their first recent titles after experiencing narrow failure the previous season. Newcastle led the table last season but were never in contention when it mattered. Kevin Keegan's undoubted motivational powers, and Terry McDermott's ability to relax players, will now be tested.