Ferguson on defensive after Capello's criticism

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The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson has rebutted Fabio Capello's claims that Manchester United are not the same force they were last season, declaring that they have only one point fewer than this time last year and that it would be unrealistic to expect more goals from a side which has lost Cristiano Ronaldo.

The England coach has said that United are not the "war machine" they were but Ferguson insisted ahead of tonight's home match with Wigan Athletic that his second-placed side's experience and strength in depth make them "better placed than most teams" and that the Premier League champions' challengers "all know that and they always have to look at Manchester United. There's no getting away from that."

Given that this time last season Ferguson was arguing that United's tough first half to the campaign – with away games at Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton under their belt – explained why they had not secured as many points as they might, his case is not overly clear. But United will be only two points behind Chelsea if they win tonight.

Ferguson's concerns about his defence now include whether Edwin van der Sar will need an extended leave of absence to be with his wife, Annmarie, who is understood to have suffered a stroke. Van der Sar will know tomorrow about the long term prognosis but she is stable in a Dutch hospital and her family are understood to feel that the extent of her affliction could be worse. Ferguson also dispelled suggestions that a knee injury suffered by Dimitar Berbatov might need surgery. "He's had a bit of niggle but he's much better now," he said. "It's improved. He came through the full game the other night. We've been treating it quite carefully regarding how much we've used him because we know that we need him and he'll play an important part in the second half of the season."

United's struggle to fire like other Premier League sides is in part a result of the failure of players to weigh in with the goals which Ronaldo provided: only Wayne Rooney has reached double figures. "You can't go into a season with a loss of the goals that Cristiano gave us last season, thinking you can improve that," Ferguson said. "We knew that goals might be an issue and we made the point that the midfield have to chip in with a few. We're not too bad."

Meanwhile, Wigan manager Roberto Martinez has attempted again to neutralise the effects of his off-the-record suggestions to a Spanish journalist that Rafa Benitez was the victim of an old boys' network of which Ferguson was a major part. "In a certain way we are exposed to certain things. It has happened to many managers in the past and it will happen in the future," the Spaniard said. "I think we have a good relationship, good enough to laugh off these situations."

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