Ferguson revives old argument with Chelsea

United manager compares average age of squads again before Old Trafford encounter
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The Independent Football

The vesuvian outburst from down the M62 was yet to materialise when Sir Alex Ferguson sat down to discuss this weekend's main footballing event yesterday lunchtime but, in the same subtle ways he has deployed against Rafa Benitez, he was quick to bring out an old fault line in Manchester United's relationship with Chelsea.

Ask Ferguson directly about the age of Chelsea's players and you will get a blast from the hairdryer. He remains incensed enough about the reporting of his dig, in South Africa last summer, that he did not see "outstanding progress in a team [Chelsea] who are in their thirties" that he will not brief British newspaper journalists overseas.

Nevertheless, it took Ferguson a little more than five minutes to raise the issue again, before describing how his club had invested in youth while Chelsea were busy buying themselves a future. The way United won back the Premier League title – after Chelsea's brief predominance following Roman Abramovich's purchase of the club – demonstrated, Ferguson said, that you can only build greatness, not purchase it. "You're right," he said, when that point was put to him. "You can go back and there are many examples of that."

Ferguson's belief that United have a quality of youth which Chelsea lack was evident. "Chelsea have always had a good squad in the past four or five years since Jose Mourinho came to the club," he said. "A very strong, experienced squad – different from our squad which is much younger."

He resisted any self-satisfaction with the thought that Chelsea, with Abramovich less involved and absent from the sides' meeting at Old Trafford tomorrow, still have not regained the ascendancy. But there was no disguising his pleasure at the way events have turned out since the west London club's enrichment forced United to renew their search for young players.

"You can only do what you think is best for your team," Ferguson said. "Knowing that we couldn't match Chelsea in terms of spending power, [we decided] the sensible thing was to go that way and identify younger players who, in the long-term, would develop into top players.

"We tended to overload on younger players [and] took a long-term view. At our club, that policy has worked most of the time. At other clubs it may not work. But we felt we should build a team that would last for a long time. That required a bit of patience at the time."

The financial threat Chelsea once posed seems to have receded, Ferguson accepted. "There certainly seems to be less impact on us than in previous seasons but that doesn't mean to say Abramovich is getting bored. I don't know what's going on down there. January has still got three weeks left and a lot can happen in that time."

All but Wes Brown and Owen Hargreaves are at his disposal for Chelsea's visit. Returning is Patrice Evra, the French left-back suspended for the past four games following the Football Association's inquiry into his scuffle with groundstaff at Stamford Bridge last April. "He'll be nice and fresh, the freshest man on the pitch on Sunday," Ferguson said. "He's had a nice break but he's been training well."

Also restored is Rio Ferdinand, who has missed the last two games to help overcome the back spasms he occasionally experiences.