Ferguson hopes Euro workload drains title rivals

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The Independent Football

His latest dispute with the media ensured there would be a new venue and a new format for Sir Alex Ferguson's press conference yesterday and yet a sense of the surreal was created by the Manchester United manager, who commenced proceedings by asking what fate had decreed in the draw for the last 16 of the Champions' League. Usually, of course, he would know.

The games were listed in the order of significance, which roughly translated into the order they were announced in Nyon. Though the roll call must have stirred the same emotions in Ferguson as when the Dunfermline team was read out for the 1965 Scottish Cup Final, and his name was not in it, pride ensured it was impossible to gauge any sense of lasting regret at United's absence from Europe's premier competition.

Ferguson has been a model of defiance since defeat in Lisbon signalled the end of Champions' League and Uefa Cup football at Old Trafford, and buoyed by the performance as much as by the result against Wigan in midweek, he was not about to relent yesterday. United were an ominous 12 points behind Chelsea after last weekend's Premiership fixtures but could halve that deficit over the course of this with two favourable results at Villa Park and Highbury.

"Six points is achievable, without question," he insisted, though he provided a warning to his inconsistent team that the champions will feel under no pressure at Arsenal on Sunday unless United triumph in the Midlands this afternoon.

"December is an important month and if you can get into a challenging position by the end of it you know you have a real chance. There is one spell of three games in five days, which gives you no respite whatsoever in terms of trying to keep the freshness in your squad. Hopefully, we can get through this period and stay within a few points of Chelsea."

Ferguson believes United's Champions' League exit could have a positive bearing on their Premiership prospects if they complete a miserable year within range of Jose Mourinho's side, although such a confession will have hurt him as much as yesterday's events in Switzerland did.

"It may help us as Chelsea and Arsenal both have difficult draws, but the only way we will find out is if the English teams stay in," he said. "Sometimes playing lots of games in different competitions can help, as it did to us in 1999, but extra games in March and April can be exhausting."

United staged an open press conference yesterday, meaning that Ferguson addressed every arm of the media - newspapers, radio and television - at once, in the club's youth academy rather than separately in the senior training complex. There was still evidence of the Scot's anger, however, as he accused the press of putting pressure on the Football Association to investigate his claims that the referee Rob Styles would never have awarded United a penalty against Everton last Sunday.

Ferguson also spoke of Roy Keane for the first time since their acrimonious split on 18 November. "I think he'll do well there," said Ferguson of his former captain's move to Celtic.

Ferguson has an injury doubt over Mikaël Silvestre for today's game with Aston Villa, where United have won on eight of their last nine visits, and will have to be at his persuasive best to add Nemanja Vidic to his defence in January after it emerged the Serbia & Montenegro international would favour a move to Italy in the January window.

United, Arsenal and Liverpool are all interested in the 24-year-old centre-half, who has a get-out clause of €7m (£4.7m) in his contract with Spartak Moscow, but the former Red Star Belgrade captain's Italian representative,Silvano Martina, has told United they will have to make a formal approach to tempt Vidic. InSerie A, Fiorentina and Internazionale are among the favourites for his signature.

"The player would like to move on," Martina said. "He will leave in January and his intention is to move to Italy, but if Manchester showed an interest then he may consider it. Vidic's dream is to play in Serie A."