Ferguson thrives on quest to rule again

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"There's always expectation at Manchester United, whether you have won something or not: that's the nature of the club," said Ferguson. "The standard of the Premiership has improved over the last three years. Chelsea only lost one game and the season before, Arsenal didn't lose any matches. Standards have been raised and it's the perfect challenge for Manchester United.

Asked how he intended to compete with the league champions, Ferguson said: "They [Chelsea] had a fantastic season; an unusual season which they will find difficult to replicate.

"They have added two or three players which will give them a stronger squad and may help them to cope with European football, but in terms of the best XI, there's not much between the two teams."

United play the Hong Kong national team this afternoon, the first of four Far East friendlies in eight days. Matches in Beijing, Tokyo and Yokohama follow.

Unlike when they last played here in 1999, 7,000 tickets remain for the 42,000-capacity stadium. Only 400 supporters have travelled from the UK, the subject of the Glazer takeover still dividing United's hard core of fans.

Ferguson has a strong squad, despite the absence of the winger Cristiano Ronaldo, who flew to Portugal to be with his ill father. The Scot declared himself content with his side's pre-season preparations.

"It has been much better than last year which was very difficult because the players who played in the European Championships didn't have enough rest," said Ferguson. "That was exacerbated by the issue of Ronaldo and Heinze playing in the Olympics. Several key players missed the opening match of the season. That meant we were chasing Chelsea all the time.

"In the past we've always had the confidence and the ability to overcome bad starts, but Chelsea kept on with amazing consistency and they deserved to win the league. This time our start will make a difference."

United deny that the tour is solely for commercial reasons, although the presence of the 20-year-old Chinese striker Dong Fangzhuo and the recent South Korean addition, Park Ji Sung, will increase their popularity.

"Dong will play in Beijing," Ferguson said. "He has talent and we hope to develop that over the next two or three years."

"Park did well in friendlies this week, but the language barrier is a bit of a problem at the moment. He has good movement off the ball; he's quick, brave and two-footed. I think we will see the emerging players from the Far East featuring more in European leagues."

A Korean journalist, perhaps unwisely, asked Ryan Giggs how he would deal with losing his place to Park, given that he is 32.

"Actually," said Giggs, who is third on the list of appearances for United, "I'm still 31. And I've not yet lost my place..."

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