It is at moments like this that Sir Alex Ferguson reflects contentedly on the way that his wife told him, a few years back, that he was not to walk away from it all. "It's the only time I've ever been bullied," the Manchester United manager said of Lady Cathy's refusal to let him retire. "I don't know how I would be feeling watching today, sat in the directors' box. It would have been difficult."
In one sense, yesterday was like any other Friday at the court of Sir Alex – aside from the uncustomary shorts he was sporting which told that summer and football's moments of truth are here. For instance, there was a typically sharp rebuke from Ferguson for the Bolton players whom he claimed had celebrated Premier League survival ahead of their walk-on role in Sunday's finale, at Chelsea. "You hear about Bolton players out all week celebrating," said Ferguson [they have in fact been out once – on Monday evening]. "Both teams [also referring to United's opponents, Wigan] are safe but one is all keyed up to play Manchester United and the other one is out celebrating."
A week after Ferguson accused the Chelsea manager, Avram Grant, of "trying anything" to procure an advantage after he had questioned Alan Curbishley's impartiality ahead of West Ham's visit to Old Trafford, Ferguson also ruminated on how his old friend Archie Knox, his assistant at Aberdeen and now Gary Megson's at Bolton, would "wish he were playing tomorrow because he will not enjoy hearing about his players going out celebrating."
It is a sign of how predictable this kind of Ferguson strategy has become that Gary Megson responded mildly to what is clearly an attempt to gee up Chelsea's opponents. "It is a fact that the players were out on Monday," Megson said. "But it is also a fact that, since Monday, there have been six days prior to this game and they will be prepared and everybody will be looking at us to see how we go about our work. I spoke to Sir Alex earlier in the week. I speak to him a lot."
But this weekend also transports Ferguson beyond all the usual kind of cut and thrust. He now stands on the threshold of a 10th Premier League title – a landmark which he admits would carry extraordinary resonance for him – and considers it an affirmation of the attacking principles which mark his own side out from Grant's that United's superior goal difference (+17) will probably be the telling factor. "We've got our beliefs about how we want to play the game, about how we think it should be played," he said. "That's in the history of our club. Everyone has their own history and ours is indelibly printed in the things that have happened at this club. It won't change."
United, like Chelsea, have had their fair share of 1-0 wins this season – they recorded four on the trot in September – but Ferguson's mind, as ever on such occasions, is filled with thoughts of what he possesses and Grant lacks. Youth, for instance: "We've got a lot of young players, which Chelsea don't really have. Apart from Mikel and Kalou, they have a very experienced squad. So it's not a surprise they're still up there challenging us."
But behind the determination to affirm his own side's pre-eminence over Grant's lurks an awareness of quite how difficult tomorrow promises to be. Ferguson talks about momentum on these occasions – he was remembering yesterday how that quality took him to his first championship with Aberdeen, the club's first for 25 years, in 1980. But momentum is a gift which currently belongs to Chelsea, not United.
Hunting for evidence of it in his own ranks, Ferguson had to dip into the afterglow of the Champions League second leg against Barcelona. His talk of United's league performances of late was limited to the fortunate draws at Middlesbrough and Blackburn and there was even a hint of self-justification in the way he returned to his team selection for the game at Stamford Bridge, where victory would have put his side out of sight. "Picking my team for that was based on wanting to get to a Champions League final, which my players deserved," Ferguson said. But doubts are not allowed to prevail in the minds of individuals like the United manager.
There were none in the three Premier League years (2004-06) United went without winning the title, he said. "At this club you can't have doubts, because you know there's an expectation that you have to deliver." Neither will he accept that Chelsea taking the title would offer psychological advantage to them for the Champions League final. "That's a different game."
Foregone conclusions? When the biggest surprise has come on the final day
GERMANY 2000, 2001, 2002
There are plenty of tales of late title dramas that Michael Ballack can use to inspire his team-mates – not that he will enjoy telling them. In 2000 his Bayer Leverkusen team needed only a draw against lowly Unterhaching to win the Bundesliga, but an own goal by Ballack contributed to a 2-0 defeat as Bayern Munich beat Werder Bremen to take the title. In 2002 Leverkusen were five points clear with three games left. Then they lost twice, allowing Borussia Dortmund to take the title. Leverkusen subsequently lost the finals of the German Cup and Champions League. In between, in 2001, Bayern Munich went to Hamburg on the last day needing a point to secure the title. Schalke 04, three points adrift, but with a superior goal difference, were at Unterhaching. Bayern's match began late, due to crowd trouble. Schalke went two-down. They drew level at half-time, went behind again but scored twice in five minutes to lead, eventually winning 5-3. In Hamburg, Bayern went behind in the last minute. Almost immediately after the final whistle went in Schalke, players and fans began to celebrate a first title since 1958. But then the stadium screens, now showing the Bayern match, showed Hamburg's ex-Schalke goalkeeper Mathias Schober pick up a back pass. Patrik Andersson blasted in a tapped free-kick. It was his only goal for Bayern, and they were champions.
Arsenal, 16-1 outsiders at the start of the season, went to Anfield on the final day needing to win by two goals to overtake Liverpool. Alan Smith glanced in a free-kick early in the second half but Liverpool's 18th title seemed imminent. Then, in injury time, Michael Thomas began a driving run from midfield. As Thomas surged past defenders ITV's commentator, Brian Moore, declared: "It's up for grabs now." It was too, as Thomas chipped the ball past Bruce Grobbelaar to win Arsenal's first title since 1971. Liverpool have not won the title since. The game and the goal became the centrepiece of Nick Hornby's book Fever Pitch, which was made into a film starring Colin Firth.
Goalscorer Michael Thomas and Martin Hayes savour Arsenal's dramatic and historic 1989 title win at Anfield getty images
ITALY 2000 & 2002
Having blown a seven-point advantage with seven matches remaining the previous season, Sven Goran Eriksson's Lazio looked set to fail again as they trailed Juventus by two points on the final morning. Lazio beat Reggina 3-0 in Rome, then waited. The second half of Juve's match in Perugia was delayed for more than an hour. When the scoreless match resumed Perugia took the lead. They hung on. Gianluca Zambrotta was dismissed, Pippo Inzaghi missed a sitter and Lazio had won their first Serie A title since 1974. Two years later Internazionale, with five matches left and a choice of Ronaldo, Christian Vieri, Adriano, Alvaro Recoba and Mohammed Kallon in attack, were six points clear of Juve. The Milan club then managed to lose at home to Atalanta and be held at Piacenza, so by the final day their lead was a point over Juventus, with Roma a further point behind. Inter were at Lazio, whose fans cheered for Inter rather than have Roma win the title. Lazio still won, as did Roma, but Juve, with a victory over Udinese, took the Scudetto.
Real Madrid's triumph last season was dramatic, Fabio Capello's David Beckham-inspired team chasing down Seville and Barcelona to beat the latter on head-to-head scores after rallying from 1-0 down with more than an hour gone to beat Real Mallorca 3-1 in their final game. But the most dramatic climax in La Liga came in 1994. Deportivo La Coruña, chasing a first title, lost a seven-point advantage but went into the final day a point clear of Barcelona. Barça, who had the better head-to-head record, trailed Seville at half-time but soon cruised ahead. Deportivo had to score against Valencia. In injury time their chance came, as they were awarded a penalty. With the usual taker, Donato, off the field and the leading striker, Bebeto, going missing, the Yugoslav defender Miroslav Djukic took responsibility. Djukic, who is now Serbia's coach, shot weakly. Jose Gonzalez saved the kick and Barcelona were champions.
Bench duty best Rooney can hope for
Wayne Rooney, a player United need for his workrate as well as finishing against Wigan, will be a substitute at best tomorrow and is unlikely to feature at all. Rooney has missed two games, including the Champions League win over Barcelona, after suffering a recurrence of a hip injury against Chelsea last month.
Defender Nemanja Vidic should be fit after recovering from concussion and a bad cut to his lip sustained at Stamford Bridge. Rooney is expected to be fit for the Champions League final with Chelsea on 21 May.
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