Ferguson trusts troops in showdown United must win

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The Independent Football

At Old Trafford last stands are not supposed to be made in October. However, even Sir Alex Ferguson, who once stated that every manager must be an arch-optimist, knows that defeat against Arsenal tomorrow would put his hopes of regaining the Premiership title almost beyond reach.

At Old Trafford last stands are not supposed to be made in October. However, even Sir Alex Ferguson, who once stated that every manager must be an arch-optimist, knows that defeat against Arsenal tomorrow would put his hopes of regaining the Premiership title almost beyond reach.

An Arsenal victory in the nearest English equivalent to the Spanish Superclasico, Real Madrid v Barcelona, would leave Manchester United 14 points adrift of the champions. Realistically, there would be no way back against a club that has not lost in the Premiership for 49 matches and 17 months.

Yesterday, Ferguson talked of how other leads had been whittled away - their own 12-point advantage against Arsenal in 1998, Newcastle's 12-point lead over his own club two years previously. But this time the difference is that, if Arsenal stumble, Manchester United may not the be ultimate beneficiaries. Chelsea are also lurking and, unlike Manchester United, they have not spent next year's transfer budget.

The Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, thought the equation was a stark and simple one. "If Manchester United fail, they will be too far out of the fight, it will be over. Arsenal will be 14 points ahead of United by winning and, providing we beat Blackburn, they will also be nine points behind us. That would make it very difficult for them and they know it. That's why I think they won't lose."

Ferguson went further, saying United's history in decisive matches suggested a home win. "My experience of my football club is that when the chips are down, when we have the kind of situation we face on Sunday, we generally do very well." You could point to any number of examples to illustrate the United manager's argument, from the 1-0 win at St James' Park in March 1996 that triggered Newcastle's collapse, to the 2-2 draw at Highbury seven years later that all but guaranteed their eighth Premiership title.

"Arsenal know they are going to have a difficult game," Ferguson said. "If there is one team they would prefer not to play to bring up their 50th match unbeaten, it would be us. I expect us to win because in these situations we don't let ourselves down. Being challenged in the big matches is something that as a manager I've spent 18 years facing up to. I have always relished them, always looked forward to them. Everyone recognises the two main clubs in this country are Manchester United and Arsenal. If we have not won the Premiership, they have won it and only the intervention of Blackburn Rovers in 1995 has changed that. It's an incredible duopoly of two football clubs with great ambitions and great histories."

Despite their supposed dislike for each other, Arsène Wenger and Ferguson, are both football men above all. Mourinho remarked he had seen them together at Uefa conferences and seen little sign of real animosity.

Friends might be pushing it a bit far, but they are no longer spitting venom. "We get on okay," Wenger said. "When you meet, it's always in a situation of immense tension before a game or one of immense disappointment or happiness afterwards. But we have interesting conversations about football without any problem."

"Arsène is protective of his club, I am protective of mine," Ferguson said. "We meet at gatherings of European coaches and our relationship is good, it's never a problem. It's a nice relaxed atmosphere, you can have nice glass of wine the night before and meet for lunch.

"When we go back to our habitat, the old habits start again and that's to be expected. Anyone who has been at a club the length of time Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger have been, then it's a natural thing. Sometimes you can never defend yourself but there have not been too many occasions when I've had to defend something that's indefensible."

On the last occasion Wenger was at Old Trafford, in September last year, he did exactly that, trying to deflect criticism away from Martin Keown and the other Arsenal players who had baited and taunted Ruud van Nistelrooy after a last-minute penalty had been missed.

Neither Wenger nor Ferguson expects a physical encounter tomorrow, although both will be straining to ensure their captains and midfield enforcers, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, have recovered from illness and injury respectively. On Arsenal's last visit to Manchester, a 1-0 win in a rough, intense match against City last month, Wenger reflected how his side had matured since then. A year ago they would have reacted and risked a red card. Then, there was not even a yellow.

"You can never say never, as it is a sport of human beings," Wenger said when asked if there would be any further flare-ups at Old Trafford tomorrow. "You want gladiators to go out with a firm commitment and big passion, although with a relaxed attitude. It went a bit overboard last season. I don't think it will happen again but I cannot say I was happy as we got a lot of negative publicity and you feel responsible for that as a manager. I remember Martin Keown telling me his kids had seen him on television and they were not very proud of him. But despite some opinions, I still think we were punished quite hard."

That statement is something for all his protests of respect for the Arsenal manager, Ferguson could never agree with.

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