There is bad news for all Manchester United's rivals, actual and potential: Sir Alex Ferguson has confirmed that even the crowning glory of a Premier League and European Cup double this month would not tempt him into retirement. "I'll be here next year," he said on Friday, two days ahead of the home game with Chelsea that could effectively bring him a 12th League title and take his club to a record 19th. For Ferguson, the ecstasy still more than compensates for the agony and the occasional sleepless night; he woke up four times before last Wednesday's Champions' League semi-final against Schalke, worrying about which team to pick. In the end, as so often in the past, he surprised everyone and was vindicated. Last night's sleep should have been sounder, for the course to take ahead of this afternoon's game is obvious to every armchair manager in the country: send out the strongest possible side.
That means restoring Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and (if fit) Patrice Evra to the back four, plus whichever of the Da Silva twins is more deserving (how he tells them apart now they both play right-back is an art in itself). In attack, Wayne Rooney resumes his partnership with Javier Hernandez, which leaves only the midfield options: two wide men out of Antonio Valencia, Nani and Park Ji-Sung, plus two central. Ferguson says the game has come too soon for Darren Fletcher, only just back from a debilitating virus, so the obvious pairing is Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs.
Unlike his near-contemporaries Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, Giggs has lasted the pace of another season superbly, and today he too will be playing for what would be his 12th Premier League medal. The first time is always the best, as he reiterated after Wednesday's game, although "there's always a reason they are good". This season's would surely be remembered as The One That Nearly Got Away, Chelsea having recovered a 15-point deficit in the past two months.
Yet Giggs, having seen it all, knows that such swings can easily occur over the course of a season: "Chelsea had a huge lead five or six months ago and sometimes these things just happen." At the end of October, United were as low as sixth, prompting Rooney's infamous demand for a transfer and some equally misguided folk writing off their chances. "We got a lot of criticism earlier in the season because we weren't playing the type of football we have been playing in the past, but it wasn't something we were worried about," Giggs insisted. Not that this is a time for back-slapping: "It will be determined at the end of the season by what we win how good this side is, not how we brilliantly we played or how many 5-0 victories we had. It's about what you win at the end."
His Master's Voice can be detected in those views, and it is hardly surprising that after all their years together Giggs should have assimilated so much of the Ferguson philosophy. The manager's attitude today, having reassured the troops and their followers that he will be there next season, is that there must be no complacency, but that United are sitting where every other team would want to be. "We are used to this last-ditch scenario at the end of the season," he said. "We have had to win three titles on the last day of the season in my time here. We are used to going to the last couple of games of the season so that is an advantage to us and the fans too. Hopefully we can hold our nerve as we have done so often in the past. We should be OK. We have the experience."
They have been there before, but which lesson should we draw? That Chelsea can go to Old Trafford trailing in the Premier League chase and secure the victory that propels them to the front, as in April last year? Or the recent example of the Champions' League quarter-final, and the obsession with Fernando Torres which leaves them fatally flawed and incapable of repeating that achievement?
What the champions clearly have on their side is momentum, and evidence of what Carlo Ancelotti says will decide the game: character, courage, personality. Those qualities have been apparent throughout the extraordinary run that began when the manager declared that a 15-point deficit in February was too much to make up; above all since the heartbreak of losing home and away to United in the European competition. Results since then have been four straight wins and 11 goals scored, most of them legitimate ones.
"We were lucky against Tottenham," Ancelotti admitted, but who would not want fortune on their side at this stage of the season? It certainly deserted Chelsea during the middle section of what Michael Essien compared to a sandwich with a "sour" filling; during that period Frank Lampard was absent for three-and-a-half months, Ray Wilkins was summarily sacked, Didier Drogba was below par and even the apparently indestructible John Terry missed games. Rejuvenation began at half-time in the rescheduled home game with United when from 1-0 down (technically 18 points behind them), Chelsea benefited from a late penalty decision to win 2-1.
Yet the Torres conundrum remains. In the eight matches during April, he was a substitute five times and was taken off in the three he started. In the Old Trafford leg of the European tie, he had to be replaced after an ineffectual first half, Drogba coming on to revitalise the side and threaten to change the balance only for Park Ji-Sung to score immediately after his equaliser. A first Torres goal at last, against West Ham, was supposed to lift the weight from those slender shoulders but against Spurs last week he was poor again and taken off again.
Despite having emphasised the importance of so many of this season's substitutions, Ancelotti is a wise enough old owl to know that picking the right team in the first place would make life easier. Today he has to make the correct selection and choose the right approach in terms of putting pressure on United while guarding against the possibility of his team being hit on the break. "They use the counter-attack very well," he said. "We have to attack, but we have to maintain balance when we attack. Some players will have to attack and others will have to be aware of Rooney and Chicharito [Javier Hernandez]. They have a fantastic combination, Chicharito attacking the lines and Rooney in between."
If Jon Obi Mikel sits back, then Lampard and Essien must win the middle ground, leaving Drogba to confirm the one real benefit so far of signing Torres: namely that it left the Ivorian with something to prove. He has already made his point to the satisfaction of most, but has a rare opportunity to ram it home today and retrieve a trophy that was on its way out of Stamford Bridge just three months ago.
In the red corner
United player 1980-86, 1988-95
Chelsea have kept going and got right back into the mix, and it's a tough call. Credit to Sir Alex, he's been able to manage his resources against Schalke and still get the job done and rest key players.
United player 1963-71
Chelsea have it all to do so they'll have to attack. Resting all those players in midweek has worked out perfectly for United. The championship is theirs if they win, and I have to fancy them.
Wayne Rooney Manchester United striker
Apps – 25
Goals – 10
Assists – 11
Apps – 8
Goals – 3
Assists – 2
Apps – 2
Goals – 1
Assists – 0
Apps – 35
Goals – 14
Assists – 13
In the blue corner
Chelsea player 1963-75,1983-84; manager 1985-88
What inspires Drogba is bringing him on fromthe bench. Ferguson's experience may be key but he must decide to go all guns blazing or settle for a draw.
Chelsea player 1973-79
It can help Chelsea that they went to Old Trafford a year ago in similar circumstances and pulled it off. Our message to them then was simply 'win' because it was effectively a title decider.
Didier Drogba Chelsea striker
Apps – 34
Goals – 11
Assists – 15
Apps – 8
Goals – 2
Assists – 2
Apps – 2
Goals – 0
Assists – 1
Apps – 44
Goals – 13
Assists – 18