Fergie has faith in discipline of big-game men

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The Independent Online

Although long years in management can teach many lessons, how to enjoy a good night's rest after a hard day's loss is not among them. Having surrendered his long unbeaten record in domestic cup semi-finals against Chelsea in midweek, Man-chester United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, did not sleep easy.

Although long years in management can teach many lessons, how to enjoy a good night's rest after a hard day's loss is not among them. Having surrendered his long unbeaten record in domestic cup semi-finals against Chelsea in midweek, Man-chester United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, did not sleep easy.

In fact he did not sleep at all until almost three o'clock on Thursday morning, having finally switched off a video recording of the 2-1 home defeat. It is a reasonable bet that Arsenal's Arsène Wenger was no earlier to bed as a fraught Sunday turned into Monday back in November, United having ended his team's even prouder run of 49 Premiership games without blemish; sleep proving all the more elusive on that occasion after that infamous altercation in the tunnel.

Tuesday night this week threatens to be a long one for one or other man, since losing the return game at Highbury would be a grave blow. Wenger approaches it insisting that Chelsea can still be caught, but to convince anyone else he will need to make up points in the next seven days, as the English football calendar creaks under the weight of two full sets of Premiership fixtures.

As Arsenal face the hardest tasks of the leading three clubs - United at home followed on Saturday by a trip to Aston Villa - that is much to ask. Even an impressive six-point haul would require the additional bonus of Chelsea faltering either at Blackburn on Wednesday, or at home to Manchester City a week today.

Ferguson succeeded trium-phantly in getting under Wenger's skin as the soup and pizza hit the fan at Old Trafford last autumn, and again with his cleverly timed "putting the record straight" interview in The Independent a fortnight ago, resurrecting the whole issue.

The same week he briefly disturbed Jose Mourinho's cool with a few quiet words to the referee in a different tunnel, but once the talking was left to the teams four days ago, Chelsea succeeded on the pitch where Arsenal had failed, and caused a late night in the Ferguson household.

"I didn't get to my bed until 2.30am because I sat up watching a video of the game and thinking about how it had gone," Sir Alex confessed. "Was it your fault? Did you pick the right team? Were the tactics right?"

Possibly not, in preferring Louis Saha to Wayne Rooney and failing to offer him sufficient support. But the conclusion was: "When you come in the next morning all you can say to the players is, 'What a bloody stupid goal that was that you gave away!' "

For two successive seasons United have found the right balance at Highbury between supporting the strikers and protecting the defence, to achieve a creditable draw. More than ever this time, an equally delicate equi-librium must be maintained in responding to the fevered atmosphere without being carried away by it.

Ferguson has no doubts about his men on that score: "Our players have been in far more hostile arenas in their careers over the years. That is what experience gives you. Giggs, Keane, Scholes and the Nevilles have been at this club for a long time and that is what they have experienced, going to places where the chips are really down, where the atmosphere is unbelievable. They are big-game players, my players, and they won't get a bigger one this season because of all the hype that is going on.

"We have had great discipline in this club, and it is not by accident. There is good discipline among the players and there is good discipline from the manager of the team, and I pride myself on that. I am going there with an absolutely clear conscience about how we are going to play.

"We will play to win the game. We will play with great tenacity, with great commitment, great determination and great skill, and hopefully we will get the result that we want."

That would ensure a good knight's sleep. If not, then as Simon and Garfunkel reminded us with their first album long ago, Wednesday Morning, 3am can be a bleak time, listening to the sound of silence. Hello darkness, my old friend...

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