Burning desire keeps Ferguson passion aflame

Manchester United manager banishes complacency as the Premiership leaders take on injury-weakened Leeds at Old Trafford this morning
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Another Saturday, another match, his 758th since taking over at Old Trafford 14 years ago next month. Being a man of inquiring mind it might be imagined Sir Alex Ferguson could be getting bored with the business of winning football games but, as he prepared yesterday for this morning's Premiership match, the Man- chester United manager's desire was undimmed.

Another Saturday, another match, his 758th since taking over at Old Trafford 14 years ago next month. Being a man of inquiring mind it might be imagined Sir Alex Ferguson could be getting bored with the business of winning football games but, as he prepared yesterday for this morning's Premiership match, the Man- chester United manager's desire was undimmed.

As he expounded on football-related subjects ranging from Spanish work permits to the miserliness of bookmakers, it was hard to imagine the 58-year-old retiring from United as promised at the end of next season. He also, incidentally, dismissed headlines claiming he had been offered the job of part-time caretaker England coach as having "no substance at all". Most of all, however, he looked forward to today's encounter against a resurgent Leeds United.

"It was a great game last year [Manchester won with two late goals, but only after Harry Kewell should have scored] and I can't help but think it will be again. Both teams will be confident after good results in Europe. They have had to come back from Istanbul, and we know from experience that it is a long journey, but coming back with a good result certainly helps. And playing at Old Trafford will lift them, it does everybody."

We are talking, not at the Theatre of Dreams, but at Carrington, the sprawling new hi-tech nerve centre of United's empire. Sited in the borderlands between industrial Manchester and equestrian Cheshire, the juxtaposition vividly illustrated by the forest of electricity pylons on one side of the entrance road and the sign identifying the horse track on the other, it is, said Ferguson, the perfect accompaniment to Old Trafford when it comes to turning the head of a prospective overseas signing. Not to mention Manchester youngsters, a gaggle of whom queue in the rain outside for autographs.

One day the best of them could be the other side of the fence for United's academy is based, like the first team, at Carrington. It is evidence of Ferguson's continuing enthusiasm for youth development, an ethos he recognises with approval in today's opponents.

"They have the same ideology, the same principles embedded," he said. "I know they looked at us, and took a lot from us. They made a conscious effort and commitment to youth, which is the only way you can do it, and have produced some good young players.

"Though they were unlucky the way it panned out at the end, they had a good season last year and though they had a lot of injuries earlier this season, they have done well in stabilising the ship. They have got the show back on the road and into the top five where everyone, including myself, expected them to be at the start of the season. After their start that was a big test. To have done it regardless of injuries tells you they have a strong squad which you need in this Premier League."

Ferguson appears particularly taken with Alan Smith, in whose fiery nature he may recognise a kindred spirit, although he noted: "Aggression is good as long as it is channelled in the right way."

Mark Viduka - "a big player with good skills" - and Leeds' young goalkeeper Paul Robinson - "a decent keeper, a big lad, he came on and did well against us two years ago" - will be key players today but Ferguson knows the result is more likely to be determined by how his team plays.

He said: "They're fresh and full of confidence. We had a good positive performance against Leicester then played some very good football in the first half against PSV Eindhoven. We should have been four-up. Then, in time-honoured fashion, we made it difficult for ourselves [as PSV equalised].

"But looking at the game again I'm not surprised the way it went, that team [PSV] never used any energy, all they did in the first half was pass the ball back to their goalkeeper, we spent a lot of time chasing and attacking. No wonder they had energy left. I'm just glad they scored as early as they did. It gave us time to get back at them."

United go to Brussels next, to play Anderlecht on Tuesday, a tie which may be more difficult than the 5-1 home victory over the Belgian champions suggests. They have since won both home matches, thrashing Dynamo Kiev in midweek, a result which "surprised" Ferguson. Home advantage appeared, he added, to be counting this year.

"Only two teams, Valencia and Moscow Spartak, won away this week," he said. "In all, nearly 90 per cent of wins have been by home teams [43-10 with 11 draws]. In our group every game has been a home win except our draw in Kiev. It was different last year and I can't explain it, though there have also been a lot more goals this year."

United are the bookmakers' favourite at 4-1. "Ridiculous," scoffed Ferguson, who knows his way around the odds. "I wouldn't recommend anybody bets on that, not with the quality and number of teams left. Look at Barcelona, they might not qualify but if you think they will you can get 20-1."

Spain, but not necessarily Catalonia, is where Ferguson anticipates the main threat to his team's chances of repeating their 1999 Champions' League triumph will come.

"The Italians have started slowly," he said, "possibly because their league started late, and the Spanish appear in the ascendancy. Valencia have won all their games, Real Madrid are top of their group and qualified, Deportivo La Coruña are doing well. Apparently they should have beaten Juventus in the week. Barcelona may be the only ones not to qualify.

"Spain used to be just Real and Barcelona. In the last few years a lot of other teams have come through. Their work permit rules are different, so they are able to get players from the smaller South American teams who you have never heard of. When Rivaldo signed for Deportivo no one knew much about him, then he emerged as a star and went to Barcelona."

By the way Mr Wenger, Ferguson did not forget Arsenal. "They played very well [against Lazio], it was a good week for all of us in Europe," he added.

But for now the focus is on the domestic game and the quest for United's 417th victory (against 138 defeats) in his charge. For a team he admits often starts slowly - Wednesday was an exception - does the morning kick-off present problems? "We're used to it now although it is more difficult for the home team. Away from home you have a regime. You can give the players alarm calls, get them breakfast and then to the ground. At home, irrespective of the start time, they have to be in three hours before kick-off, so you depend on them waking up in time to be at Old Trafford at 8.30am. Some do sleep in."

Perhaps instead of suggesting his players get married, as he was reported yesterday morning to have told Dwight Yorke, prompting hilarity in the dressing-room but a blast of "Fergie's hairdryer" for the journalists responsible, he should tell them to have kids. There is not much danger of a lie-in then.

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