Ferguson admits title race is over for United

Manchester United 0 - Manchester City 0
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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson began the 19th year of his reign at Old Trafford by all but conceding that Manchester United's bid to regain the championship is over.

Sir Alex Ferguson began the 19th year of his reign at Old Trafford by all but conceding that Manchester United's bid to regain the championship is over.

Two seasons ago, in the wake of a defeat in the final Manchester derby staged at Maine Road, Ferguson used the result to demand fundamental change, threatening to throw open the dressing-room doors and let United's fans berate his players.

Yesterday, after another game of enormous pressure but no goals left his team 11 points adrift of the Premiership summit, he appeared not angry but resigned. "We are getting nine parts of our game right but the 10th and most important just isn't there," reflected the United manager. "One win in five games is not championship form and I can't excuse anybody in our club for that. They are not good enough to win the championship on that display."

Frankly, they do not look equipped to finish second. Although the focus was on United's frantic attempts to break down Manchester City, the ultimate winners wore a different kind of blue. Chelsea's lead over United now seems enormous and there was nothing in this display to suggest it would be whittled back quickly.

Ruud van Nistelrooy's absences against Portsmouth and now City, with his remarkable display against Sparta Prague sandwiched between, have underlined the preciousness of the striker to the United machine. They had 14 shots at David James's goal, forced 16 corners and if it was an end-to-end game it was only because at half-time the end of the ground that 21 footballers found themselves in had changed.

Yet, as Kevin Keegan pointed out, James made few actual saves of note. Stephen Jordan and then Steve McManaman cleared off the line; Ryan Giggs and Louis Saha wasted chances straight in front of goal, but James's most memorable moment came when he ran out of his area to nutmeg Giggs.

Manchester United began the game as if determined to knock City cold within the first quarter of an hour. Paul Scholes delivered beautifully-timed passes to all areas of the pitch; Cristiano Ronaldo turned Danny Mills on the right flank and they might have been awarded two penalties. Sylvain Distin seemed to pull back Mikaël Silvestre and then Antoine Sibierski all but wrestled Saha to the ground.

After the penalty "won" by Wayne Rooney against Arsenal, Ferguson might not have expected much sympathy from the wider public, although this did not deter him from remarking that, "you needed to have hit someone with an axe to win a penalty today". Alan Smith's 10th sending-off of his career for two needless bookable offences, he dismissed as "ridiculous". Except in Europe, where Van Nistelrooy still appears the supreme predator, Manchester United's horizons are narrowing fast.

For Manchester City, this was not their first victory at Old Trafford since Denis Law's back-heel sent United into the Second Division 30 years ago, it just felt like it. This, however was a genuinely heroic fighting retreat, founded on a discipline few thought City capable of.

Keegan remarked that when he managed Newcastle he would come to Old Trafford and attempt to take on United on their own terms. These days, he no longer has the players for this. Instead, he employed Nicolas Anelka as a lone striker and trusted that his senior professionals would show more fight than they had against Norwich last week.

They did. Richard Dunne, who is sometimes parodied as a lumbering, unsophisticated footballer, enjoyed one of the games of his life; his block to deny Rooney was as vital as the two earlier clearances off the line. "Alex Ferguson said that he considered Liverpool to be his local derby," Keegan said. "We are in the same city as them and this was our chance to remind them of it. Perhaps they don't think of it as a derby because too often City teams have come here and not made it hard for United. That has changed."

Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Miller (Giggs, h-t), Keane, Scholes (Rooney, 77); Saha, Smith. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), P Neville, Brown.

Manchester City (4-4-1-1): James; Mills, Dunne, Distin, Jordan; Flood, Bosvelt, McManaman, Sibierski; S Wright-Phillips, Anelka. Substitutes not used: Wattereus (gk), Fowler, Onuoha, McCarthy, B Wright-Phillips. Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).

Booked: United: Keane, Smith. City: Jordan, Flood.

Sent off: Smith (89).

Man of the match: Dunne.

Attendance: 67,863.