Ferguson: seven days to fulfil his great Cup expectations

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The Independent Online

If there is a crisis at Manchester United it is not reflected in Sir Alex Ferguson's face, where the only lines tend to be associated with smiles rather than worries. Even the current rash of injuries among his roster failed to induce dejection ahead of this afternoon's visit to Highbury, where defeat would leave the champions trailing 15 points in Arsenal's powerful wake.

If there is a crisis at Manchester United it is not reflected in Sir Alex Ferguson's face, where the only lines tend to be associated with smiles rather than worries. Even the current rash of injuries among his roster failed to induce dejection ahead of this afternoon's visit to Highbury, where defeat would leave the champions trailing 15 points in Arsenal's powerful wake.

"I have no idea what my team will be right now," he said after a training session on Friday. "I have so many bloody injuries. Players training with injuries and players playing with injuries." His further thought that "it has had a demoralising effect on me" was undermined by the broad grin which accompanied it. "But we'll get a team, don't worry," he promised.

As if it was ever needed when these two teams meet, added zest is provided by what happened when they met at Old Trafford early in the season, with the massed assault launched on Ruud van Nistelrooy by Arsenal men enraged at the late red card issued to Patrick Vieira. Perhaps enough has been said about that shameful episode already, but Ferguson, ever ready with a boot, repeated that "scenes like don't do football any good". That said, he was as complimentary as could be expected towards deadly rivals who are poised to displace him from the Premiership dais, calling Arsenal's midweek draw with Chelsea in the Champions' League "a tremendous advertise- ment for the English game."

Ferguson did not stop there. "The number of points Arsenal are ahead of us tells you they are the better team," he admitted. "They have had a better season than us." He did muse, however, that a United win at Highbury "could have Arsenal thinking a bit". They were memorably overhauled by United at this time last year after the sound of too many confident noises came out of the Arsenal camp. It was time for the Ferguson boot again. "I think they were taught some manners last year," was how he put it.

"But this season, to be fair to them, there has been no cooling off. They have gone about their job focused and playing well, not talking." Barring miracles, the FA Cup represents United's only chance of a trophy this season, and the club's focus is fixed more firmly on next Saturday's semi-final with Arsenal than today's League set-to, as Ferguson conceded with this comment: "Sunday's game could have a bearing on the semi-final in the sense that it is about credentials rather than form. And if we can get to the position of fulfilling our own expectations in the League game, then next Saturday's semi-final could be very interesting.

"We want to win the Cup and we have a good chance. Villa Park will provide a neutral venue, with equal support. There are a lot of things going for us," he asserted, without specifying any. "But the most important thing is to get the bodies who aren't fit right now ready for next Saturday." There has been inevitable speculation, albeit a mite premature, about Arsenal's chances of emulating the Treble of Premiership, FA Cup and Champions' League which United achieved in 1999. "It's up to them to shape their own history," said Ferguson. "I don't envy anyone chasing a bit of history because we have done ours, and it has been fantastic. First English club to win the European Cup, first one to do the Treble."

In adding that it was something Arsenal could aspire to, Sir Alex was merely pointing out that there remains much to be done. "But what has helped them this season is what we had going for us in 1999, the common denominator, no injuries," he pointed out. "We went through the second half of that season with Roy Keane missing only one game and went into the European final with only one player injured in the whole club, Henning Berg. It was unbelievable.

"And Arsenal have had only one player injured this season, [Freddie] Ljungberg. That's the kind of luck you need. Having everyone available you are then able to leave players out for the occasional game. That's the luxury you have when the squad are fit and you can plan two or three games ahead."

As to whether his team were hurt by what has happened this season, Ferguson said, "I hope they are disappointed," before identifying what he considered the moment United's decline began. "It was the disappointment of Rio's [Ferdinand] suspension, the minute he walked off in his last match for us at Wolverhampton in the 57th minute on 17 January. We were four points clear of Arsenal.

"Since then we have just not had a regular back four. Mikaël Silvestre has been injured, Gary Neville has been injured and suspended, Quinton Fortune is out for the season. We have had to change the back four almost every week and that does not help. That is what has created the 12-point gap."

The Churchillian declaration by another of those defenders, Wes Brown, that "we will never give up the chase" cannot mask the fact that United are running out of time in the Premiership. But Ferguson responded robustly to any suggestion that Arsenal and Chelsea may be overhauling Manchester United, not only in the table but also as the country's most important club. "Impossible," he said, repeating the word three times in case it had not registered.

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