His resurgent team adorn the top of the Premiership and their Champions' League group but the task of restoring style and pre-eminence to Manchester United has not been completed in the eyes of Sir Alex Ferguson. Autumn is no time to embrace acclaim and, in a pointed reminder to his players that the challenge to Chelsea's ascendancy has only begun, the United manager yesterday took the unusual step of confirming his interest in Owen Hargreaves remains.
Old Trafford desire for England's player of the World Cup is hardly a secret given the stand-off United endured with the tenacious midfielder's present employers, Bayern Munich, until the close of the transfer window. Ferguson remains undeterred by Bayern's unwillingness to part with the 25-year-old, however, and refused to dismiss suggestions that he may renew attempts to sign the player in January, once Hargreaves has recovered from a broken leg.
"I can't give you an update because we haven't spoken to Bayern Munich recently," said Ferguson. "But we are still interested." That admission was in keeping with an assessment that this United team, or rather their squad, have not silenced those who doubted their ability this season to usurp Chelsea domestically or to threaten Barcelona's mantle as the European champions.
The fragility of Ferguson's resources were further exposed yesterday by the astonishing revelation that, despite a return to sublime form this term, Paul Scholes does not have 100 per cent vision in the eye he damaged at St Andrews in December. "There's no problem with his vision as such, but there is a slight haziness in the centre of his eye," confirmed the United manager, who is without the injured Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Louis Saha tonight.
Twelve months ago United were already involved in a fruitless game of catch-up with Jose Mourinho's champions while sliding out of the competition that still impassions their manager at the group stage, the first time they had suffered that humiliation in 10 seasons. Tonight they could seal their place in the knockout phase with two games to spare if they complete a double over Copenhagen at the Parken Stadium, but evidence of a transformation has not tempted Ferguson to issue a riposte to his detractors just yet. That, he hopes, can wait until May.
"There's no real recovery in Europe as yet, we've only played three bloody games," he said. "The real test will come when we play the knockout stage." On United's domestic renaissance, Ferguson expanded: "The way Chelsea have been in the last couple of years it is not surprising that everyone else was written off before the start of the season, not just us. I think most critics forecast Chelsea would run away with the title this season. What we've been trying to do is get a bit of maturity from our younger players and get a consistency of performance. Hopefully the Bolton game was an indication of the progress we are making.
"This is the first time Chelsea have had a challenge in the early part of the season. In the last two seasons we were several points behind them, they made good starts, and that's what enabled them to win the two titles fairly comfortably. It's early days yet but if we're still up there come April or May, we'll have a hell of a chance."
The United manager cites a defensive strength comparable with Chelsea's for renewed hope of a first League title in four seasons and believes that Michael Carrick's gradual emergence as an £18.6m player will have a major influence on their fortunes at home and abroad. "Michael is a fantastic passer of the ball and I think in Europe he will excel, because it's a competition where you don't want to give the ball away," his manager said. "Carrick's performances have been good, but Scholes has been absolutely superb. All the focus has been on him and maybe that's been good for Michael, it's enabled him to settle, take his time and he's produced some good football for us."
Carrick himself admitted: "It does take time to settle but the more games you play the stronger you become. I am enjoying it at the moment and I've no doubt there is more to come from me."
Copenhagen (probable, 4-4-2): Christiansen; Jacobsen, Hangeland, Gravgaard, Wendt; Silberbauer, Linderoth, Norregaard, Hutchinson; Allback, Berglund.
Manchester United (probable, 4-4-1-1): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze; Fletcher, O'Shea, Carrick, Ronaldo; Scholes; Rooney.
Referee: W Stark (Germany).Reuse content