Ferguson cultivates art of possible

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Chelsea's relentless pursuit of the Premiership title has claimed another victim; the famed belligerence of Sir Alex Ferguson. Where once the Manchester United manager would have had a vitriolic response to the rival who scheduled 9 April as the end of the championship, yesterday he could offer only the assessment that Jose Mourinho was probably correct in naming the date for his second successive coronation.

Liverpool's defeat at Stamford Bridge aided United's prospects of claiming the final automatic Champions' League qualifying place but by casting old enmities aside to support the Anfield club last Sunday, Ferguson had highlighted the contest as a defining moment in the season. The 15-point gap that Chelsea subsequently established over their closest challengers prompted Mourinho to declare that he would emulate Ferguson as the only manager to win the Premiership in consecutive seasons when West Ham arrive at Stamford Bridge with four weeks of the campaign to play.

Though he gently admonished the Portuguese coach for "screaming from the rooftops" and warned that, "Maybe his turn will come some day", the Scot conceded to Mourinho's argument but stopped short of conceding the title itself.

"It is possible Chelsea could win the league on 9 April, but then anything is possible," he said: "It is all a bit tongue in cheek with Jose - it is in his nature to have a bit of fun."

United's slim title aspirations will be over if they succumb at Portsmouth tonight for the third year running, although Ferguson travels to Fratton Park with a squad bolstered by the return from injury of Ryan Giggs. While United have rediscovered the goalscoring prowess Ferguson believes was lacking on recent trips to the South Coast, their defensive frailties, with six goals conceded in the last two league games, have been exposed again.

New signings Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic are yet to justify their combined £11.7m transfer fees but Ferguson argues: "Parts of their game are very good and all we need to do now is improve their understanding of the game in this country.

"You can play in Monaco in front of maybe 3,000 people and then you come to Old Trafford and there are 67,000 watching you against Liverpool. It is very difficult to adjust immediately."