Ferguson has no fear of Chelsea challenge

United manager admits Premiership title race is now three-cornered affair but knows money does not guarantee success
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The manager of the last club to try to buy the title so nakedly was at Old Trafford last Saturday, remarking that his first priority was 40 points to ensure survival in the Premiership.

Blackburn after Jack Walker have become a strange, shadow club, their seasons limited to runs in the League Cup and the odd foray into Europe. Their decline from becoming the first side to break Manchester United's grip on the Premiership to relegation took four years.

United's greatest advantage has always been money. Their gate receipts alone give them a £23m advantage over Arsenal and attempts to close this chasm have invariably ended with challengers impaling themselves on their own finances. Two years after their European Cup semi-final, Leeds are teetering on the edge of administration. Arsenal's commitment to move to a new stadium could potentially bleed them white. Newcastle have long-term debts of some £70m. Gérard Houllier has spent nearly £60m to give Liverpool a taste of some minor cups, while Chelsea were probably a year from insolvency before Roman Abramovich decided Stamford Bridge would give him a greater profile than Siberia.

Abramovich's arrival and the money he has sent sluicing down the Kings Road has altered the way the Premiership is viewed from Old Trafford. Usually, Sir Alex Ferguson has been able to fix his sights on one major opponent per season. First Blackburn, then Newcastle and, since 1998, Arsenal.

Now, as the Manchester United manager conceded, the Premiership is a three-cornered contest which will be fought out in isolation from the rest, just as the Scottish Premier League is settled by matches between Rangers and Celtic.

"It looks as if the three teams are not making any mistakes and you would have to think the games against each other will be decisive," he said. "Nobody will break into the top three. Not unless one of the three's form collapses or someone has a run of nine wins. Newcastle and Liverpool have the capabilities to do it but I can't see anyone else."

The speed and volume of Abramovich's spending is astonishing. In the space of two months he bought £110m worth of footballers to Stamford Bridge. In comparison, from his appointment of Kenny Dalglish in October 1991 to the moment the championship was delivered at Anfield in May 1995, Walker spent £60m and half of that was on the redevelopment of Ewood Park.

Blackburn did not dwarf their rivals' expenditure as Chelsea do. In the same period, Graeme Souness spent £22m on bringing a series of indifferent players to Liverpool while Ferguson broke the British transfer record, spending two pounds to every three of Dalglish's. Claudio Ranieri's outlay is five times what Manchester United have managed in the post-Abramovich world.

Ferguson does not show the same antagonism towards Chelsea that he displayed towards Blackburn, possibly because his relationship with Dalglish was always sprinkled with frost. He does not yet see Chelsea as a greater threat than Arsenal, who have taken points from both their rivals in this "Group of Three".

Asked if he thought Ambramovich had been good for English football, Ferguson replied: "He's been good for Chelsea. They have every right to change and improve their fortunes and I wouldn't want to deny them that opportunity. Everyone is entitled to progress in life and, if it leaves others behind, you can't blame Chelsea for that.

"Can you buy the title? I would have said no, normally. But Chelsea will certainly be there at the end of the season. I don't know where the pressure on Claudio Ranieri has come from, to be honest with you. But he has done the hard part - he is picking the right team."

This, Ferguson acknowledges, is the greatest difficulty facing the manager of a big club - keeping under-employed millionaires happy. There were kind words yesterday for Nicky Butt, whose omission from United's midfield in recent games has led to friction which his appearance in Athens on Wednesday night may not entirely soothe.

"He [Ranieri] has four strikers and I had that with Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before the European Cup final. Cole and Yorke had played together a lot and scored so many goals together, so that swung it for them but I knew on the big occasion Teddy Sheringham would have been a great asset.

"These are the things that will be going through Claudio's mind. He can pick from four and it's not easy when you've got so many players and are trying to keep them happy. It works if you win something and they all feel they've made a contribution. That's something we've had here."

Ranieri has won nothing since replacing Gianluca Vialli and nor did he take a championship in his spells in Italy or Spain. But those who think Chelsea will fall apart when the season reaches its climax will, Ferguson says, probably be wrong. "Experience of winning is important, although Chelsea have bought players with experience, people like Crespo, Veron and Makelele, who have had success with others."

But there are only so many compliments Ferguson is willing to give. Interestingly, he remarked Manchester United "would be playing a team that thinks it will have to beat us", and talked up his own summer purchases. "The boys with potential are Fletcher, Ronaldo, Bellion and Kleberson. Are they behind any of those Chelsea players? No way."