Football: Title rivals' test of nerve

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST time he was on the golf course, the second watching snooker on television, the fourth working out in the gym. The third time Manchester United clinched the title under his management, Alex Ferguson was at least in the dug-out but it was at Middlesbrough.

This weekend, at last, United and their manager finally have the chance to secure the championship, their fifth this decade, in front of their own fans. "The thing I wanted most when I came to Old Trafford," Ferguson said yesterday, "was to win the title: that had to happen. The second was to win it at Old Trafford, in front of our own fans, to win a clincher: that hasn't happened yet."

It will if United beat Tottenham tomorrow afternoon or, failing that, match whatever result Arsenal achieve at home to Aston Villa. For the third time in five seasons the Premiership has gone to the wire and United, as usual, are involved.

In 1995 they were held at Upton Park by West Ham, allowing Blackburn to take the title despite losing at Liverpool. The following year victory at Middlesbrough kept them beyond Newcastle United.

"It's a test of nerve but I trust them," said Ferguson of his team.

"Going into the match I've only got to look at what they have achieved this season, they way they've responded to the big games, Inter Milan, Juventus, Arsenal in the Cup, all matches when they had to perform. This is now one of those matches and they have never let me down. I believe in them and, more important, they believe in themselves, that was the case even at 2-0 down in Turin."

He added, more circumspectly: "Spurs are hard to beat and they can be stubborn when they put their mind to it so. We're favourites but anything can happen."

The days when teams played such matches in isolation are long gone, with transistor radios keeping everyone at Old Trafford and Highbury informed of the other club's progress. "They are bound to hear other scores," Ferguson said of his players. "The important thing is that they keep their concentration."

He added: "I have experienced winning the title at home once, with Aberdeen in 1985, and it is a great feeling."

On that occasion, however, Aberdeen were well clear, their 1-1 draw with Celtic securing the title with two games left. This time it is much closer and much tenser.

Roy Keane, United's combative midfielder, has a bruised ankle but is likely to be involved at Old Trafford, though not necessarily as a starter. Jaap Stam, the club's pounds 10m centre-half who has an Achilles' heel problem, is expected to play from the start, however.

At Highbury, where United's least favourite referee, David Elleray, is in charge, Arsenal are without Nigel Winterburn, who suffered a broken nose at Leeds in midweek. Nelson Vivas, despite being blamed by the manager, Arsene Wenger, for conceding Leeds' winner, should deputise.

"We have to be totally concentrated on our own job and, besides, the crowd will let us know how Tottenham are doing," Wenger said yesterday. "It is a strange situation but all our supporters will become Spurs fans for a day as well."

The title is United's, to win or lose. Victory could set up a unique treble which, Sir Bobby Charlton said yesterday, would make the present United team "arguably the best there's ever been". Charlton, a World and European Cup winner, added: "I've never had a sense of anticipation like this."

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