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Premier League

Alex Ferguson predicts top six battle

Sir Alex Ferguson has declared last week's Community Shield as the start of a phoney war for Premier League supremacy and warned his young troops the "real stuff" begins at the Hawthorns on Sunday.

Manchester United sent out a real message of intent at Wembley.

Dominant in the first-half against Manchester City, United nevertheless found themselves two goals down.

It was not until the interval introductions of Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans that the Red Devils really cut loose, scoring three times to win the trophy and confirm their status as title favourites.

However, Ferguson is wary about the heightened expectations.

Firstly, there were no points at stake. The Scot is also aware City might be slightly behind in terms of preparation as opposite number Roberto Mancini still has a couple of signings to make in addition to inserting Argentina duo Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez into his team.

With Chelsea leading the scrap from outside Manchester, Ferguson is preparing to face down as many as six challengers.

"They all knew last week was the Community Shield," said the United boss. "It was not the real stuff. That starts on Sunday.

"Wembley was an occasion. There was rivalry and everyone was motivated. We have to show that in every game.

"It is going to be tough. It will be a hard campaign, it always is. We will waken up to the fact last week was a different game."

Ferguson is given greater confidence because of the youngsters on display last weekend, only goalkeeper David de Gea lacks top-flight experience in England.

The value of loan spells for Danny Welbeck and Cleverley, both called into Fabio Capello's England squad for this week's postponed encounter with Holland, at Sunderland and Wigan respectively is now being shown.

Jones has been maturing at Blackburn, whilst Evans and Chris Smalling are already well used to high octane combat with the Red Devils.

"Picking my team is made easier by the second-half performance last week," said Ferguson.

"When you are 2-0 down in these big games, you don't expect what we saw.

"Welbeck has played at Wembley two or three times but we wanted to find out how Phil Jones equipped himself, plus Smalling and Cleverley.

"They were fantastic but we still have to respect the experience of the ones who came off at half-time."

For all his immense belief in the young players, it would be a major surprise if Ferguson did not rely on his elder statesmen at the Hawthorns.

With all five major title rivals to face before the end of October, United cannot afford to make a slow start, especially as Ferguson expects such a major threat to his team.

"City are still short of a bit of fitness, have Aguero to come in, Tevez to come back and they might buy another two players," reflected the United boss.

"The experience Chelsea have is better than anyone. Terry, Drogba and Cech have been there for yonks.

"They have been involved in the last seven titles. You cannot, in any way, dismiss them.

"The expectation will be on Liverpool to improve given the money they have spent and you can't rule Arsenal out either.

"They used to talk about a top four. Now it is the top six. That is even more interesting for everyone."

Ferguson does not have everyone available this weekend.

Darren Fletcher and Antonio Valencia will play for the reserves against Arsenal at Barnet on Monday after overcoming a virus and an ankle injury respectively, whilst Javier Hernandez is 10 days away from a return to football duty, according to his manager, after a bout of concussion.

Still, he has plenty of options at his disposal as United look to improve on a disappointing record away from Old Trafford last term, when they managed just five wins, in contrast to dropping only two points on home soil.

"Last season was our worst record in the Premier League away from home - and our best at home. What do we do about it?" shrugged Ferguson.

"I was surprised with the number of points we dropped away from home.

"We would settle last season's home record again. But we can't bank on that."