Ferguson offers proof of renewed solidarity at Old Trafford

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The Independent Football

Unity has been the theme of the week at Old Trafford, where autograph hunters and not assassins confronted the Glazer brothers Avi, Bryan and Joel on their first public appearance at their father's club on Tuesday night, and Ferguson unearthed more evidence for his conviction that solidarity is returning to United yesterday when Paul Scholes, with perfect timing, signed a two-year extension to his existing contract and Rio Ferdinand officially put pen to paper on a new four-year deal.

Ferdinand's declaration of peace ended the disruption Ferguson feared most before a crucial campaign, which begins at Goodison Park at lunchtime today, while the latest round of no-nonsense negotiations with Scholes is an important sign of normality after the turbulence of Malcolm Glazer's takeover. Cristiano Ronaldo is also on the verge of extending his Old Trafford career until 2009. "Essentially, the contract has been agreed," said Ferguson, likewise Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea, strengthening the manager's belief that commitment will not be lacking in the challenge to Chelsea.

Ferguson, like any other manager in Europe, cannot compete with the champions' spending power and has offset the arrivals of Edwin van der Sar and Park Ji-Sungby selling Phil Neville and Kleberson. Not content with treating the claim of the Chelsea chief executive, Peter Kenyon, that the next Premiership champions will come "from a group of one" with contempt yesterday, however, the United manager proclaimed that he enters the new campaign with a more balanced and contented squad than could possibly exist at Stamford Bridge.

"I'm not so concerned about the amount of money Chelsea can spend on players simply because it's not in my terrain or anyone's terrain," Ferguson said. "The great thing for a club like Manchester United is that we can still attract the best players here. Chelsea cannot get everyone, that's obvious, and they won't want everyone because the squad they have now is probably too much, and they could still sign Essien.

"They are going to have to keep all these players satisfied, whereas here I have a group of players who now, with Ferdinand and Scholes signing today and with us agreeing deals with Ronaldo, Fletcher and O'Shea, I can keep as a team for four years. They are all on four or five-year contracts and are happy here, that's fantastic. Plus, with the way we are trying to develop our youth system it means we are in a very good position."

United remained tight-lipped on their pursuit of São Paulo's £8m-rated right back Cicinho, although the Chelsea chief executive's recent comments on the title race drew a disdainful response from Ferguson. "Fortunately, it is not the manager saying it because it is not someone speaking with any knowledge of the game" he said; "You know a football man would not say anything like that. Because it is not the manager, you can take it with a pinch of salt."

For all the happiness that now pervades United and the disregard for Kenyon, who has never been forgiven by Ferguson for the collapse of the deal for Ronaldinho three years ago, there was no dismissal of Jose Mourinho's prospects of following the United manager as the only man to win the Premiership in successive years and no disguising the strides required to wrestle the title back.

"You have to target Chelsea," insisted Ferguson, pointedly ignoring Arsenal's chances. "The way they performed, the strength of their squad, they are the main challenger. It seems the margin of error is smaller than ever. Last year they lost only one game and had 95 points: we had the record of 91 for years. To go from 91 to 95 is a quantum leap. You can't envisage teams regularly going over 91. It will be difficult to get to 95 points again."

* The teenager John Obi Mikel has been ordered to return to Lyn Oslo by the game's world governing body, Fifa. The 18-year-old Nigerian is involved in a contract wrangle over his proposed transfer from the Norwegian club to Manchester United, which is due to be completed in January.

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