Sir Alex Ferguson has indicated that he will use January's transfer window to significantly strengthen Manchester United's squad in readiness for a sustained attempt to regain the Premiership title.
The United manager has long distrusted mid-season signings, claiming they are too often a reaction to temporary events, although both Eric Cantona (December 1992) and Andy Cole (January 1995) proved exceptionally good buys. Should his side lose at Anfield on Sunday and fail to hold Arsenal the following Saturday at Old Trafford, such reinforcements may be purely academic since they could be possibly 12 points behind Arsène Wenger's champions. Even the current six-point gap, he said yesterday, was "a lot".
However, Ferguson recently suggested he intends to remain as United's manager, a post he first took up in 1986, longer than most people expect and yesterday he talked of building a fourth great team, to go alongside the Double winners of 1994 and 1996 and the treble winners of 1999.
"We have created three teams in 10 years and it is possible we are on the way to building another one," he said. "If we do, obviously new players can come in.
"We have trusted and believed in the nucleus of our squad which has been there a long time, some seven to nine years. I think Arsenal and Liverpool have improved and I don't think we are meeting expectations. Arsenal and Liverpool have built up very big squads. In particular, Liverpool have built up a very strong and athletic squad and in the summer they bought four players. I think, since Gérard Houllier came in, they have bought something like 28 players in four years. That emphasises the ambition and desire of Liverpool, whereas over the last four years we have been adding one player at a time."
It should be said, however, that those "one players" have been hugely expensive. Ruud van Nistelrooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and Rio Ferdinand each broke the British transfer record. They cost collectively some £80m and only the first has been an unqualified success. The 11 players Wenger started with in Wednesday's victory over Roma cost roughly half that.
With Roy Keane, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Ferdinand all due to return from injury before Christmas, it had been thought that United would not be seeking reinforcements in January but if, as Ferguson senses, the tide is starting to turn his way, he, like his fellow Scot, Gordon Brown, might be prepared to splash out to secure the club's long-term prosperity.
"I hope it is a defining week for us," he said of the encounters with Liverpool and Arsenal. "The Newcastle game on Saturday was the first time we have got a result and capitalised on it. When we've won other games or when Arsenal have lost we haven't tended to gain any ground at all. For the first time on Saturday we pulled some back. We are still six points behind Arsenal and that's a lot at this time of the season, but it can be whittled down in two games; football is like that."
Asked if he would have accepted being six points behind Arsenal as the price for the prolonged absences of Beckham, Ferdinand, Gary Neville and, above all Keane, Ferguson said: "Faced with the injuries we have had, you would have accepted that and we are starting to score goals again. We probably created five chances against Basle and if we had really pushed the button more we could have scored more."
They need to find their goal touch, if for no other reason than, historically, a massively superior goal-difference has always put them a point ahead of their rivals. In their last title-winning season, 2000-01, they entered December with seven straight wins, a sequence they have never come close to managing this time. They could even afford a first defeat by Liverpool in more than five years, without losing momentum. They most assuredly cannot afford that now and if both games are lost Ferguson will have to think of rebuilding for a title tilt in 2004 or, perhaps, a run at this season's European Cup.