Ferguson scorns City challenge

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The Independent Football

Rumours of impending blue supremacy in Manchester have been exaggerated for some time now. To Thaksin Shinawatra's declaration last season that Manchester City could become "the new Manchester United" were added the even grander pronouncements of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan's spokesman Sulaiman al Fahim that Cristiano Ronaldo might be persuaded to join Robinho across town come January.

It was with an understandable sense of satisfaction in the moment of truth, then, that Sir Alex Ferguson settled back in his chair yesterday to discuss Sunday's derby match and opted for a rhetorical question. "Where are they at the moment?" he said of City. "Excuse me! At this moment in time our threats are Chelsea and Liverpool, who are sitting above us aren't they? That's the focus."

The answer he did not wait for is 11th, three points from the relegation zone. Did Ferguson also ever fear, when he caught wind of City's new riches, that Mark Hughes might steal Dimitar Berbatov from under his nose? "We didn't think so," he said, a smile playing across his face. Ferguson has already done some talking about City's pretensions. "Cheap talk," was the way he described them a few months back when Berbatov, who may play on Sunday having missing the trip to Villarreal with a hamstring strain, was unveiled as a United player. Ferguson's delivery yesterday was more understated but it was characterised by a certain coolness towards Hughes and a disinclination to offer much sympathy for the pressures which come with his financial inheritance.

Spending someone else's fortune on players is "easier said than done," Ferguson said. "That's when decision-making has to come into it, and it's Mark who is left with that responsibility. How he changes his team is for him. That's where decision-making comes into it." Applying that extra pressure as he does so well at moments like this, Ferguson was at pains to reiterate that Chelsea have demonstrated that coming into millions overnight can bring success. "There are examples where it has not worked. But our own experiences were with Chelsea when [Roman] Abramovich came in and bought all those players that summer and they won the league for the next two years," he said. "What we had to do was not sit back but accept the challenge. This club can accept a challenge, all right. We had to, otherwise we would have been second for ever more. We accepted the challenge and won the last two titles. But [Chelsea] seemed to cope well in terms of bringing big players in to play together. They have a strong squad of players and of experienced internationals."

Ferguson, expected today to attend the hearing at which United will seek a work permit for 21-year-old Partizan Belgrade midfielder Zoran Tosic, also called into question Hughes' ambitions to overhaul his side in the transfer window. "I don't think January is the best time to buy players. It depends on how they do in Europe of course, but January's never the best time," he said.

United's own plans for the future included the announcement yesterday of a link-up between their academy and the Brazilian youth club Desportivo Brasil in a country which Ferguson believes is currently delivering the world's brightest talent.

Their relish for the derby, in a week when Wayne Rooney declared them ready to show who are the real "kings of Manchester" is accentuated by last season's two defeats to Sven Goran Eriksson's City side, which still rankles with Ferguson. "We were unlucky last season, no question at all," he said. "You always hope in a big game to carry your share of luck." Ceding further ground to league leaders Chelsea would also be a calamity with the break enforced by the World Club Championships in Japan on the horizon.

Berbatov, who is known to have been one place above Robinho on the list of players Sheikh Mansour asked Hughes to draw up before the Abu Dhabi takeover on 31 August, will be judged by Ferguson at the weekend. Having never experienced a hamstring injury before, his full recuperation from this one remains a matter of concern.

There was some mild encouragement for City's own spending ambitions when World Footballer of the Year Kaka admitted it would be "great" to play in the Premier League and said he had been discussing City with his compatriots. "I've been speaking with Robinho and Elano sometimes about Manchester City, but I don't know," said Kaka, whose contract with the Milan runs until February 2013. "I'm very happy that they want to take me from Milan, but I think it is very difficult."

Blue moans: Sir Alex on local rivals

On City's new-found wealth:

"They've been talking about the players they want, like Ronaldo, which is absolutely absurd. It is all talk at the moment."

On Mark Hughes' claim that City v Chelsea was a bigger game than Liverpool v United on the same day:

"I'm going to check what he had for breakfast. Something must have upset him. Give him a reality check."

On City's league position:

"Where are they [City] at the moment?"

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