Ferguson turns up heat on Arsenal

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The Independent Online

Angling is one of the few subjects Sir Alex Ferguson appears to have no interest in, which is surprising given his ability to reel in opponents.

His first championship with Aberdeen in 1980 was won after overhauling a big Celtic lead and as Newcastle, under Kevin Keegan, and Arsenal discovered last year, being comfortably ahead of Manchester United with a third of the season remaining is no insurance against finishing second. Yesterday the United manager suggested that the burden of going through so much of the season unbeaten might begin to tell on Arsène Wenger.

Compared to the load carried by Leeds United, not having lost a game with March approaching may not appear to be a great weight to carry. However, despite Manchester United's five Premiership defeats, Arsenal's lead is still only five points, exactly the same as it was this time last season. Then, Wenger's side failed to win seven of their next 12 games and an eighth Premiership title was unexpectedly in Ferguson's grasp.

After losing to Middlesbrough on 11 February, the United manager remarked bluntly that he could afford no more slip-ups but argued that the old guard of his great team - Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and the Neville brothers - has experience of putting together the required long unbeaten runs.

"When push comes to shove, we have done that very well over the years and after the Middlesbrough defeat it has to be all systems go," he said. "We have to go through the rest of the season undefeated, which we have done several times over the years. Arsenal might go the season undefeated, who knows, but they could still lose the League. It is a big burden to go through the season undefeated. I experienced it myself with Rangers."

As the spring of 1968 bloomed in Glasgow, Rangers, their attack led by the razor-elbowed Ferguson, went into their final game, against Aberdeen at Ibrox, not having lost a match. Two-one up with a quarter of an hour left, Rangers went down 3-2. Celtic, who had also lost a single match, took the title by two points.

Ferguson, who once wrote that he almost wanted Leeds relegated purely because of the dislike he felt for their fans, did however extend some unexpected sympathy towards Elland Road over their loss of Mark Viduka for this afternoon's game at Old Trafford. Viduka has been banned by Fifa, the world governing body, for not attending what the Leeds chief executive, Trevor Birch, called "a Mickey Mouse" fixture with Australia.

"Sepp Blatter [the Fifa president] seems to be having a go at English football every week," Ferguson said. "We have been talking about having a fixed international calendar for donkeys' years. He and Michel Platini said they would have a committee to look into it and nothing has happened. We have the Champions' League restarting on Tuesday and we have internationals the week before it. I can understand any club not wanting their players to go."

United will also resist attempts by Ireland to lure back Keane to the international fold. Any recall by Ireland would undo the work of their coaching staff, who have rested Keane regularly throughout the season, and would be seen by some at Old Trafford as a retrograde step.

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