Ferguson insists only staying unbeaten will do

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In the past two years what was once a psychological flight of fancy has become a standard aspiration for the Premiership élite, an indication of the fine margins that exist between Chelsea, Arsenal and United and the widening gulf with the remainder.

Only Arsenal have achieved the historic feat in modern football but with the last two English champions losing only one game between them in the past two seasons - Chelsea's slip at Manchester City last term - the bar has been raised to an unprecedented level. Beckham's suggestion was mocked in 2001, ultimately with good reason, yet this week Gary Neville and now Sir Alex Ferguson have voiced the same opinion and not through idle boasting, but to underline the strides that must be taken to bring the title back to Old Trafford.

The Manchester United manager admitted his side were playing a fruitless game of catch-up from the moment they lost on the opening day of last season at Chelsea. With a visit to Goodison Park raising the curtain on 13 August, it was not purely out of irritation that Ferguson appealed for Rio Ferdinand to sign his contract and stabilise United's pre-season preparations, earlier this week.

Yesterday the United manager explained, "The Chelsea game last season demonstrates the need for us to be up and flying from the first game. In many seasons past we would have caught them by Christmas and gone by them by the middle of March so what Chelsea tell us - and Arsenal the season before - is that the champions now average half a defeat between them, Arsenal with no defeats two years ago and only one for Chelsea last season.

"The game is changing and it does look as if we have to start a league season thinking that we cannot afford to lose once." With only £6m spent this summer so far, on Edwin van der Sar and Park Ji-Sung, Ferguson has made modest improvements to a team that lost five times in the league last season and yet believes an unbeaten campaign is achievable if a strike force that remains the envy of his rivals can stay fit.

"What happened in the cup final was no accident, it happened throughout last season," he reasoned. "There is a great responsibility on taking chances and I am sure that last season was a one-off. You cannot dismiss Ruud van Nistelrooy's goalscoring ability, but he had a terrible time with injuries and had no consistency whatsoever. It will be different for him this season and hopefully Luis Saha will stay fit too.

"Wayne Rooney produced a fantastic goal tally for one so young and in his first season at Manchester United, at 17, so the potential for goals is there, but we cannot afford to miss chances at the same rate. I am positive we won't.

"If we get the breaks with injuries then we've got a great chance. We lost Ruud, Luis and Alan Smith for two months last season, but this is a good squad now, with good young players and ample experience and we should do very well." United's ageing midfield, however, has not been overhauled although in 24-year-old Park, Ferguson believes he has the player to ease the increasing burden on Ryan Giggs, who turns 32 this November.

Ferguson said: "Like everybody else Park is a squad player at the moment but you do have to look at the age of the team. Ryan Giggs is 31, he has been up and down that left wing for 15 years. Park will give us more options. He can play on the left or right, and alternate with Cristiano Ronaldo, or he can play through the middle, but in his most effective games when I saw him for PSV he played on the left, cutting inside. I think we will start him there and see how he develops.

"Guus Hiddink told me he is improving every day. He's quick, mobile, versatile and has the fantastic energy that is a real asset." Ferguson meanwhile is confident Roy Keane and Wes Brown will accompany United on their tour of the Far East next week despite suffering hamstring and Achilles problems respectively in training.

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