Ferguson claims Arsenal are lost in 'transition'

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Rather than revel in his early-season ascendancy over Arsène Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson offered a rare appreciation of Arsenal's difficulties yesterday and, in doing so, appeared to have acquired the passive, laissez-faire attitude to football of those supporters he has blamed for diluting the atmosphere at Old Trafford. Thankfully, it didn't last long.

With a wave of his hand and the trademark "I'm not going into that, right?" the Manchester United manager dismissed a question relating to his relationship with Wenger, a gentle reminder that their bitter rivalry has not followed Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira out of the Premiership or been diverted by the arrival of a third, dominant force in Jose Mourinho.

Subtler still was the criticism inherent in Ferguson's analysis of Wenger's team. A side in transition, explained the United manager. His message, however, was that while unbeaten United are rising out of their transitional trough, Arsenal are still immersed in theirs, and it may be a good while yet before the Emirates Stadium catches its first glimpse of the Premiership crown.

"This is a transitional period at Arsenal because they have lost big figures like Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Ashley Cole and that has probably been reflected in their results so far this season which have fallen short of what they would have been looking for," ventured Ferguson. "When that happens you just have to be patient and wait for the next stage of the development."

Without a League title of his own for three seasons the United manager can speak from experience but, with a 100 per cent start to the season rekindling optimism, Ferguson is starting to speak with the confidence of a manager finally equipped to challenge Mourinho's Chelsea, although Arsenal provide the first true test of the campaign in that regard.

"I know exactly what they [Arsenal] are going through because we have been through a same situation," he said. "As one great team begins to fade you have to bring through a new group of young players who could develop into another major force. It is difficult.

"For one thing you build up an affinity and affection for players who have done well for you and there is a reluctance to part with those players. Also, it is not easy to find quality replacements, but we have steadily brought in new players and hopefully our period of transition is behind us. Our start suggests we are doing something right, not just because of the results but with the way we have been playing."

Ferguson spoke wistfully of the absence of Keane and Vieira from the Premiership's most tempestuous fixture - "I used to enjoy their competition and I think they did too" - yet he believes the possibility of United establishing a 13-point gap over Arsenal will ensure tomorrow's contest remains as feisty as ever.

The United manager insisted: "We had a similar situation two years ago when they came here with their unbeaten record and if we had lost that we would have been 13 points behind, so we are not looking into that too deeply. I don't think we can underestimate Arsenal that's for sure."

Michael Carrick, the club's £18m purchase from Tottenham, concurred: "It is too early in the day to be writing Arsenal off. Arsenal had a good result in midweek at Hamburg and will be confident going into the game. If we win the game we are in a strong position, but you can't look too far ahead. Things will only be settled at the end of the season."

Though United will be without the enormous influence of Ryan Giggs for at least the next three weeks due to a hamstring strain and Park Ji-Sung for three months following ankle surgery, Ferguson does have Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo available together for the first time tomorrow since the 5-1 demolition of Fulham on the opening day of the season.

Mindful of the havoc Rooney has wreaked on Arsenal in the past, his manager has predicted an overdue return to prominence for the England striker this weekend. "Wayne is no different to any other player on this planet," said Ferguson. "He needs games.

"He has hardly played in the last four months but I am sure he will be far better on Sunday."