Ferguson gears United for catch-up

Manchester United manager looks to sense of togetherness to triumph in 'tight' league
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With good reason, as events transpired, Sir Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United squad were not too concerned about how Arsenal's encounter with Liverpool played out last weekend.

The television images at their Yokohama hotel were evidently quite grainy but the champions also had the small matter of their team quiz to contest as they kept an eye on the TV screen in background. "Yes, more important things to deal with," Ferguson reflected jocularly, ahead of this afternoon's visit to Stoke. "[I] lost [the quiz] on the last question. There was a bit of cheating going on. And whose fault was that? The quizmaster must be reprimanded."

Even Ferguson did not imagine that not one of his three main rivals would conjure a win between them during a trip from which they returned as World Club Champions – Everton's ability to contain Chelsea on Monday night was the major concern to him, before the sides drew 0-0. But he said, before the challenge of a side whom both Arsenal and Liverpool have laboured against, that the efforts of the lesser sides has also left him pessimistic about United securing six or seven successive wins which might put them en route to retaining their title.

"If you win two games you're almost challenging for a European place and I've never known it as tight as that," he said. "I don't think [a long unbeaten run] will happen. I think it's going to be a tight league."

It is a view at odds with Rio Ferdinand, who has said he believes United are now capable of going on an extended run, though the Blackburn Rovers manager, Sam Allardyce, is reading things the same way as Ferguson, expecting perhaps 43 points to be the minimum requirement for survival.

Japan might just be the starting point for something more sustained than an as yet indifferent league campaign for United, though. It was not so much the winning of the World Club Cup as the sense of togetherness it bred which has filled Ferguson with optimism. "When they are all away for a long period like that they are all together," he said.

Ferguson, whose squad has emerged injury free from the trip, could not resist one little dig at Football Association over the publication of the report of the Patrice Evra hearing: a couple of FA representatives had been in Japan, he remarked – "don't miss the trips do they? On the back of MU of course." You also sensed a slight frustration that the Japan tournament had not engendered more excitement in Britain than it has elsewhere on the footballing planet. The only downside was Nemanja Vidic's sending off in the final against Liga de Quito of Ecuador, which creates the prospect of him missing United's Champions League visit to Internazionale. The United manager is hopeful that the punishment will be no greater than that, with perhaps no ban at all.

Ferguson again suggested that he will bring no players in during the transfer window and did not lift the doubt about whether the Serbian left midfielder Zoran Tosic will sign from Partizan Belgrade. "It's up to the boy himself now and his agents," he said. "They brought over quite a few agents so they've obviously got a bit of discussing to do."