Ferguson starts mind games with Ancelotti

United manager claims he was unaware Chelsea were playing Hull last Tuesday
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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday blew the dust off his self-written manual on how to win the Premier League, thumbed through the well-used pages, stopped at the chapter called "Mind Games" and put them to work ahead of today's encounter with Portsmouth.

Ferguson stated that he was not even aware that title rivals Chelsea were playing against Hull City on Tuesday evening in their game in hand over United, only learning of the 1-1 result after watching his son Darren's Preston North End side lose 4-1 at home to Barnsley.

If that is true, it is an incredible oversight from a man as meticulous as Ferguson. The chances are that it is an attempt by the United manager to portray himself as so comfortable and almost blasé about the title run-in that nobody else matters and a win today would send United back to the Premier League summit, at least until Chelsea play Arsenal tomorrow. "You know, I didn't realise they [Chelsea] were playing," he smiled.

"I thought they were playing on the Wednesday. I was at a game and left with five minutes to go and on the radio it said it was still one-each at Hull. I thought it was the next day so it was a wee surprise for me."

Success for United in the post-Christmas period and Ferguson's willingness to sow the seeds of mental unease in his opponents go hand in hand. They picked up 58 points from an available 66 from Boxing Day and onwards last season, 47 from 60 in the 2007-08 season and 42 from 57 in 2006-07 and as those years all ended in title success, Ferguson is keen for his team to maintain that tradition.

"Historically, we have always grasped the nettle at this time of the year," Ferguson said. "The players realise there is something at stake and we can't afford inconsistency.

"Teams will drop points in every run-in, but we are experienced and know that if you're going to drop more than the rest you're going to lose the League. Our aim is to try to be as consistent as we can, and produce the kind of performances we did on Sunday [against Arsenal] and that will take us very close. Each game towards the finish becomes more important and it doesn't matter who it is, we want three points from every one now.

"Whatever games we have got left, if we win most of them we have a good chance and Portsmouth comes into that category so it's a big game for us."

United will face Avram Grant's side with Owen Hargreaves's future no clearer than it was earlier this week when Ferguson omitted him from his 25 players for the remainder of their Champions League campaign.

The knee tendonitis that has kept Hargreaves out for the past 16 months has abated but his full recovery is taking much longer than anticipated and there are concerns about the player's mental fragility and morale. As a result, Ferguson wants the midfielder to use the World Cup finals as the light at the end of what has been a disturbingly long tunnel.

"The biggest incentive should be to get back into our team, but if at the end of it is that carrot of being at the World Cup, then I'll be happy with that," Ferguson said. "I think he would be an important player for England too.

"If he gets back, the confidence would come back. It's hard for him. He's been out for a year and a half. The physios are doing their best with him. There are some times we feel he's almost there, and then he seems to be slow again. I'm confident he will be back before the end of the season."