Sir Alex Ferguson has warned his Manchester United players that they must sign off with a win when they make their final appearance in the Premier League for nearly three weeks at Portsmouth tonight. United are due to fly to Monaco to face Zenit St Petersburg in the Uefa Super Cup on Friday and Ferguson knows his title rivals have an opportunity to open up an early lead next weekend.
After an unspectacular draw against Newcastle, Ferguson is anxious to avoid a repeat of last season, when United did not win until the fourth game of the season, a statistic which made their subsequent title triumph even more impressive.
After Fratton Park, United are not in domestic action until 13 September, when they visit Liverpool. They face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge eight days later.
"We had a terribly slow start last season," Ferguson said. "Hopefully it's not as bad this time. But they're not going to give any medals out in August or September. Everybody wishes are that you win every game and it doesn't happen, and everybody wishes that you don't get injuries, but it happens."
Ryan Giggs echoed his manager's sentiments as United and Portsmouth prepared to face each other for the third time in a month. United defeated Harry Redknapp's team 2-1 in a pre-season friendly in Nigeria before Portsmouth lost out in a penalty shoot-out to decide the Community Shield at Wembley two weeks ago.
"We don't want a massive gap to open up between ourselves and the other teams who are going to be up there," said Giggs. "The Newcastle result was disappointing, but that has gone. We're looking at Portsmouth and then the Super Cup. Then we've got a two-week break before facing Liverpool away. We want to make sure we go into that break with two wins under our belt."
Giggs is set to feature tonight after recovering from a hamstring problem while Carlos Tevez is ready to make his first Premier League start of the season. Owen Hargreaves is also hoping to provide United with a boost, after recovering from a damaged knee, but the match has come too soon for Park Ji-Sung, who has returned to training after a knee problem but is lacking match fitness.
Darren Fletcher is eager to take advantage of Manchester United's limited midfield resources and cement his place in the first team. With Cristiano Ronaldo still more than a month away from a return, following ankle surgery, and Nani serving the last fixture of a three-match ban, Fletcher will retain the right-sided berth tonight.
"It might work to my advantage that so many players are out," he said. "We have a lot of players out just now, and when we are short of numbers, you need to take your opportunities. There is so much quality in the squad we all know if you do not perform the manager will have you straight out of the team.
"But, as we have seen plenty of times before, the manager will stick by you if you do the job he needs."