Having celebrated his 67th birthday on the last day of 2008, Sir Alex Ferguson remains as combative as ever; too much so for some tastes, as his opposite number at Liverpool, Rafa Benitez, made clear on Friday. This afternoon, Luiz Felipe Scolari, the latest managerial rival to step off a Chelsea coach at Old Trafford, will also find confirmation – if he is in any doubt – that Ferguson's competitive juices are still bubbling away.
Earlier in the season, Ferguson fired a volley at the Football Association for overturning John Terry's red card against Manchester City, enabling him to play in the draw with United the following weekend; then there was a blast over Patrice Evra's four-match suspension (he is available today) and one too for the Premier League over a rather far-fetched allegation of handicapping United in the fixture lists. Conspiracy or not, the benefit has been to have already played away to all the other teams in the top six. The downside is not having beaten any of them: draws at Aston Villa, Chelsea and Everton, defeats at Arsenal and Liverpool.
The relevance to today is that 1-1 result in the battle of Stamford Bridge in September (United had seven players booked), when Ferguson won a tactical victory against Scolari by playing Owen Hargreaves and Ji-Sung Park as wide midfielders to stop the home team's full-backs. The unfortunate Hargreaves, who had occupied the same role in the Champions' League final between the teams, has barely played since, and Cristiano Ronaldo is more likely to occupy that position today; if he enjoys as much good fortune as he did while crashing his Ferrari on Thursday, escaping with scarcely a scratch, Chelsea will have cause to worry.
They will be treated with respect, however, by a manager who, unusually, has struggled for results against them ever since Roman Abramovich rode into town and began throwing gold bars around: only three wins in 16 games, one of them on penalties after Terry slipped over at the crucial moment in that momentous Moscow final last May.
"They have got experience and they have been our main rivals for the past four or five years," Ferguson said on Friday. "We've played them in the FA Cup final, the Champions' League final, they have been the closest to us for the past few years, so you have to think their experience will count at some point. They've still got some top players there, and having [Didier] Drogbaback could make a difference for them. They are still a powerful team."
Where he feels reassured is not only that United have been able to continue bringing on young players to back up their own expensive signings, but also that even Abramovich's spending seems to have been curbed: "Two or three years ago there was a fear that they could buy everyone. I think the fear was because it was something new, this young guy came in and showed he had money, he changed the whole concept of Chelsea. Suddenly they had 25 or 26 players, all inter-nationals, he was paying them all large salaries and it didn't seem to bother him one bit. There was an obvious drive to be the best team in the country.That did create a certain fear for ourselves and for Arsenal. We had been the main competitors for the title for years and years, and now the whole ball-park was changed. We had to think about what we could do about it."
He is entitled to be pleased with the response. Seven points behind Chelsea with two games in hand, they are sensibly fitting in those matches, at home to Wigan and Fulham, before the Champions' League resumes in the last week of February, and could – should – be in a more formidable position by then as long as defeat is avoided today. A win would be handsome but is not essential.
Ferguson is right to say: "The defence has been solid, the area we need to improve is the goalscoring." United have kept seven successive Premier League clean sheets over a period of 678 minutes since Arsenal's Samir Nasri scored the winning goal against them at the Emirates early in November. By definition, they have not been beaten since then. Yet the last six League games have produced only four goals, giving Chelsea a huge advantage in goal difference.
"Normally our goal difference has been the best in the League, almost an extra point for us really, but we are creating lots of chances and not taking them," Ferguson admitted. "That's a surprise, and you can't put it down to one particular thing. I keep talking about concentration and I'm hoping we are going to do better in the second half of the season, because if it turns out that's what cost us the League we'll never stop kicking ourselves. I'm hoping it's only a matter of time beforethings get better."
Chelsea have been equally profligate. Conceding late goals from a set-piece in their past two games, against Fulham and Southend, would not have mattered if those further forward had taken one more of the many chances created. In those two matches Chelsea had a total of 38 shots and 22 corners, to the opposition's eight and five respectively, and still only drew both. Scolari, unless he is being exceptionally devious, is making little secret of his tactics, admitting that he will not play Drogba and Nicolas Anelka together in a 4-4-2 formation until he has a left-footed left-winger. With the disappointing Florent Malouda injured,neither Joe Cole nor Salomon Kalou qualifies, so a 4-3-3 with both of them wide is one possibility; the other is to leave one of them out and shoehorn Deco – another underachiever – into a five-man midfield with Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack.
If Arsenal appear to have left themselves too much to do now, and too shallow a squad with which to do it, Ferguson acknowledges with just a little dig that Liverpool remain in contention: "[Their] supporters are talking about winning the League and the players are talking about winning the League, so that's a change."
He still believes the chase willbe reduced to two runners; he just won't say which ones. Today's eagerly awaited encounter could offer persuasive evidence either way.Reuse content