Ferguson looks to Europe as Chelsea race on

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The Independent Football

The Champions' League, to which United return tonight at home to Lille, remains the greatest source of irritation to Ferguson on account of his club's failure to add to the ultimate high of 1999, yet he conceded it could represent their finest chance of major silverware this season if the Chelsea manager continues to produce consistently remarkable domestic results either side of his holidays.

Mourinho entered the international break wallow- ing in a 4-1 victory at Liverpool, and returned from France for a 5-1 destruction of Bolton that stretched his winning streak since the start of the season to nine matches and put the feat of claiming a first title for three years into a stark reality for Ferguson.

Before this campaign commenced the United manager had spoken repeatedly of how Arsenal and then Chelsea had raised the bar for championship success, but there was still a note of astonishment in his voice as he reflected on the opening enjoyed at Stamford Bridge thus far. When asked if, as a consequence of Chelsea's ruthless march, United had more chance of winning the Champions' League than the Premier League this season, Ferguson replied; "Yes, at this moment in time it is obvious. Unless Chelsea start dropping points they are in a very strong position."

As Ferguson said, it is obvious, but for someone so alien to acknowledging a competitor's strength as he is, it represents an ominous omission. He expanded: "But I also want to say that it is still only October, so it is silly to think of them as champions at this moment in time. They are relentless at the moment and obviously in the Champions League you've got the opportunity to win it within 13 matches whereas we will have to win another 20 to win the league in England.

"It [the Champions' League] is a tournament we feel we haven't won enough and it is one we are gearing ourselves up for each year whilst also trying to win our domestic league. We are trying to stay in the slipstream of Chelsea for when they do slip-up."

While United currently lie 10 points behind Chelsea in the Premiership, albeit with a game in hand, the picture in Group D supports Ferguson's confidence that the European route can offer salvation.

His team have gained four points from two games so far and back-to-back fixtures against the bottom club Lille present United with an opportunity to assume control of the group with two games to spare, even with Wayne Rooney serving the final part of a suspension tonight.

"We want to win the group but if you look at the quality in the tournament maybe that doesn't mean a lot," he said. "Last season Real Madrid, ourselves and Barcelona finished second, the quality is superb and that is why this tournament is such an attraction."

Despite registering his first United goal as a substitute at Sunderland on Saturday the 18-year-old Italian striker Giuseppe Rossi is not expected to replace Rooney, with Ruud Van Nistelrooy likely to carry the attack with support from Paul Scholes. Ferguson said: "He is a fantastic talent but he has only played 15 minutes. I think we need more experience."

United's considerable injury list has been reduced by the return to training this week of Wes Brown and Louis Saha, though neither will be considered tonight, with a reserve team outing against Middlesbrough on Thursday and next week's Carling Cup tie with Barnet their respective targets.

Ferguson made it abundantly clear that if Brian Kerr is relieved of his duties as the Republic of Ireland manager, with the Football Association of Ireland's Board of Management meeting today to discuss the failure to reach the World Cup, then an international telephone call from Dublin would be a complete waste of time.

"I made the point last week - after this job, I'm finished," he said. "It is important to clarify though that they have got a manager, and it is not nice to be linked with a job that someone else has already."

Probable teams: Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Van der Sar; Bardsley, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea; Ronaldo, Fletcher, Smith, Giggs; Scholes; Van Nistelrooy.

Lille (4-2-3-1): Sylva; Lichtsteiner, Plestan, Schmitz, Tafforeau; Makoun, Bodmer; Gygax, Acimovic, Dernis; Odemwingie.

Referee: Stefano Farina (Italy)