Ferguson hails late shows – and makes case for his defence


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The Independent Football

A footballer's idea of poetry has seldom progressed much beyond Paul Gascoigne's tribute to Sir Bobby Robson that began: "When I was 12 I met a man called Bobby. It was in Ipswich in a lobby." The opening line of T S Eliot's The Waste Land, about April being the "cruellest month", would, for all sorts of reasons, be met with a blank stare at Carrington.

April at Manchester United is usually a wonderful month. The team is in its groove, their opponents are seizing up and the beaches and shopping palaces of Dubai are starting to beckon. United have won 11 of their last 14 matches in April and lost once, to Chelsea.

The season that was supposed to climax with the great prizefight of old and new Manchester money slugging it out at the Etihad Stadium may be decided tomorrow.

Sir Alex Ferguson has been around too long to say it openly but he, like Roberto Mancini, understands that should United overcome Queen's Park Rangers and City fail to beat Arsenal, the title race will be all but done.

"If we can win our game on Sunday, what it means to us is that we are still five points clear, even if City win, and there is one game less," said the United manager. "We are down to six left. At this moment in time, all you have to do is cut away the games."

Last Monday night at Blackburn, the gap was extended to five points, as wide as it has ever been between the two Manchester clubs. In many ways, it was a typical Manchester United performance; late goals scored late in the season against a side that gritted their teeth and did their damnedest to defy them.

"It is not an accident because there is a thread that relates to the club that way," said Ferguson. "You go back to 1993 and Sheffield Wednesday and two goals in the last nine minutes of injury time. It is part of our history that we don't give in; we are always capable of scoring late goals. It has been obvious for many years now."

Ferguson was asked for the moments when this season, like so many before it, had turned Manchester United's way. Ferguson mentioned United's astonishing, Rooney-fuelled comeback from three goals down at Chelsea and Ryan Giggs' last-minute winner at Norwich City, but he also thought Monday night at Blackburn was decisive.

"Because with nine minutes to go, it's 0-0," he said. "But they don't give in. They kept their intensity and concentration really well and that, to me, was the plus point.

"Although we had all that retention of the ball, David de Gea has made three fantastic saves. He kept us in the game. Rio Ferdinand's experience has been important. His block on Yakubu in the second half may have won the game for us. When Yakubu gets his chances, he normally takes them."

Significantly, if the title remains at Old Trafford, the campaign will have been won at the back.

Manchester United have won their last four games without conceding a goal. This from a side without their captain, Nemanja Vidic, and whose central defence has lately been in the hands of Jonny Evans – the young Ulsterman humiliated during Manchester City's 6-1 victory at Old Trafford in October.

"I think some people relish challenges and others wither," said Ferguson of Evans, who has matured markedly alongside Ferdinand.

Perhaps more surprisingly, United were in the hands of a goalkeeper supposedly too young and too vulnerable in English conditions to succeed

"I expected David de Gea to make a contribution when he arrived at the club because of the homework we got back on him from when he was a kid," said Ferguson. "We always felt he was going to be top. To get in the Atletico Madrid side at 18 and win the Europa League with them – you can't deny that kind of performance level and ability.

"But Peter Schmeichel found it difficult coming into the English game in his first few matches and so did David de Gea. He found it difficult and he made mistakes but we forgive players who make mistakes at 20 or 21."