On the eve of the two games that will decide which Manchester team become Premier League champions, Sir Alex Ferguson has demanded that a defiant message be sent to his club's rivals. "We're not going away, and I'm not either," he said at the club's training ground barely a mile away from Manchester City's, adding: "You'd better let them know across the road."
The United manager claims City's challenge has "taken three years off me and I'm feeling younger already". But in banishing all thoughts of retirement, the 70 year-old has also been forced to acknowledge that City are not going away either and remain firm favourites to ensure their first League title since 1968 by winning at home to Queens Park Rangers today.
Leading bookmakers have Roberto Mancini's team as short as 1-9 to do so, with United 6-1 outsiders to achieve a better result than City do in their game at Sunderland and claim a 13th title in 20 seasons of the Premier League.
A fifth finish as runners-up seems the more likely, in which case, Ferguson said: "We just accept it as a challenge. We've done that well over the years and we'll just do exactly the same. It's not a club that's afraid of that. We've always been able to accept that and it's a challenge for me too. I don't mind a challenge."
Mancini claimed winning the title for City would be his greatest achievement in 10 seasons as a manager. "I think this is the best championship in the world for me," he said. "It's the most difficult so if we win, it would be the very best. But I say 'if' we win because we still have another game."
He has no injury concerns for the visit of QPR, who under Mancini's predecessor, Mark Hughes, need a draw to stay up if Bolton win at Stoke. United will be without Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck, although the latter hopes to be named in Roy Hodgson's European Championship squad on Wednesday. Yesterday Ferguson also claimed Rio Ferdinand's long-standing lower-back problem might mean he was unable to complete the busy schedule at Euro 2012.
City seemed to have thrown away their chance when they followed draws with Stoke and Sunderland at the end of March by losing at Arsenal to fall eight points behind. Since then they have won five successive games, including the crucial one at home to their neighbours, who in the same period were beaten by Wigan and allowed a 4-2 lead at home against Everton to evaporate.
Having instilled what he calls a "winning mentality", Mancini hopes a title to follow last season's FA Cup success would allow the squad to emulate his Internazionale side of the mid-Noughties. "We began with the Italian Cup, then we continued for the next four years – seven trophies," he said. "And after that [Jose] Mourinho carried it on. When you start to win it becomes... not easy, but the players start to understand that if they work hard, they can improve their mentality, they can continue to win. For a lot of players this is important. If we win they'll have changed history here after too many years. There will be a part of history in English football for this club."
Ferguson was also looking to the future, if only because in his case this afternoon looks less promising. "We've got the next tier of players around the age of 24," he said. "They're young enough to stay with us for a few years and hopefully we can build a team around that nucleus. There are one or two young players in the reserves who are doing very well, Will Keane will definitely come into the squad next year, his brother Michael is doing very well too and the boy [Ryan] Tunnicliffe looks as though he's got a chance."
Paul Scholes, who returned in January after prematurely retiring, will be allowed to wait before deciding whether to commit to another season and Michael Owen's future is also unclear, although he will be involved at Sunderland today. "If you are needing a goal in the last few minutes of a match there is no one better than Michael Owen," Ferguson said. By then United may need a miracle.
If both teams have the same result today, it will be the first time since 1989 that the top two have finished level on points. On that occasion Arsenal and Liverpool had an identical goal difference as well but Arsenal had scored more and became champions. City's goal difference is eight better than United's, thanks to beating them 6-1 and 1-0.
Manchester City v Queens Park Rangers is on Sky Sports 1 this afternoon, kick-off 3pm; Sunderland v Manchester United is on Sky Sports 2, kick-off 3pm
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