Arsenal run still haunts Ferguson

United can go eight points clear but are warned to beware the sides of March
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For a man of such extraordinary accomplishments, Sir Alex Ferguson has a curious inclination to dwell on disappointment rather than success, which was why thoughts of a lost title which have haunted him for 11 years returned to mind, as he pondered the thought of opening an eight-point lead over Liverpool today.

Manchester United’s lead over Arsenal was 13 points in March 1998, albeit with fewer games to play. Then injuries struck and so did Marc Overmars, scoring the winner at Old Trafford which helped Arsène Wenger to reel United in. Ferguson could have seized on more positive parables against complacency for his side, who have neither lost nor conceded in the league since Arsenal beat them on 8 November. United’s own overhaul of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle’s 12-point lead in 1996, for instance. But the 1998 year will suffice as Ferguson seeks to guard his “untouchables”, as Wenger has described them, against that great foe – complacency.

“It was a foregone conclusion until we came to the beginning of March,” Ferguson said of the 1997-98 denouement. Injuries played their part, with Ryan Giggs, Gary Pallister, Peter Schmeichel and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer all affected and Paul Scholes forced to play with a broken toe when Arsenal arrived on 14 March.

“We had to play him wide right against Arsenal to keep him away from the central midfield that day,” Ferguson said. “So we really were depleted that day and we should have got a draw. They scored with 10 minutes left. But that’s history.”

Wenger employed the self same story to rally his own side when they were 14 points behind United during Christmas 2006, though Ferguson admitted yesterday that the tighter make-up of the Premier League these days makes a feat like Arsenal’s far more improbable now. He is treating Wenger’s tribute to United on face value – not as a deft way of applying pressure – and is mildly amused by the fact that one bookmaker has paid out on United taking the treble.

The United manager, who feels that Wayne Rooney must prove in his first start for five weeks against Blackburn Rovers this evening whether he is fit enough to start against Internazionale in the Champions League on Tuesday evening, has given a 12-month contract extension to keep Gary Neville at Old Trafford until June 2010, a week after Ryan Giggs also secured one. Ferguson does not believe United will supply England internationals in the same way again, such is the pressure for instant success, and he also suggested yesterday that the idea of players such as Neville, Giggs and Paul Scholes, playing into their mid-30s was a thing of the past.

“There are quite a lot of players in the country who are quite wealthy today and maybe don’t want to go through the whole process of starting their pre-season, and so on. But these three seem to want to. Gary never had the talent of Ryan or Paul. But he has this determination to make sure he will always be in the team. Every training session he always tries to improve.”

Ferguson, who will know today if John O’Shea has recovered from his injured heel to be in contention for Rovers, reiterated his view that Chelsea’s removal of Luiz Felipe Scolari will help United. “They’ll have their work cut out to not just overcome us but Liverpool too,” he said. “There is no doubt Guus Hiddink has great experience and success, but 10 points behind [us] at this stage of the season is a lot,” he said. Not insurmountable, though, as Ferguson knows from painful experience.