Ferguson works on winding up a worried Mourinho

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The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson cranked up the pressure on Chelsea yesterday, the Manchester United manager claiming that the Premiership leaders and Carling Cup finalists were "grasping for form" after defeats by Newcastle in the FA Cup and Barcelona in the Champions' League.

Sir Alex Ferguson cranked up the pressure on Chelsea yesterday, the Manchester United manager claiming that the Premiership leaders and Carling Cup finalists were "grasping for form" after defeats by Newcastle in the FA Cup and Barcelona in the Champions' League.

Ferguson's side, themselves beaten at home by Milan on Wednesday, trail Chelsea by nine points. However, United can narrow the gap to three points before the London club resume League combat, by beating Portsmouth at Old Trafford today and Crystal Palace away next Saturday lunchtime. The prospect was tailor-made for the Scot's penchant for turning the screw, and he did not disappoint.

"Anything you say nowadays is treated as psychological warfare and mind games, but the fact is Chelsea aren't playing as well as they were four or five weeks ago. You can see that - it's obvious," Ferguson said. "Now they have lost two important players to injury [Arjen Robben and Wayne Bridge]. They're grasping for form. If they were to lose a League match at any stage before coming to play ourselves and Arsenal, they have no real form to fall back on."

A third successive Chelsea loss, against Liverpool in the Millennium Stadium tomorrow, would not materially affect the top-of-the-table situation. Yet Ferguson is clinging to the hope that it would dent the self-belief of Jose Mourinho's team. "They're obviously looking over their shoulders at us and Arsenal. We both have the tradition, history and experience of winning the title on our side, which they don't have."

Ferguson admitted this is a "more resilient" Chelsea who will "defend for their lives if they have to". But he added: "While that may save them points, it's not going to bring them the championship. Winning matches is what's important between now and the end of the season, and if they draw a couple that's not actually much better than losing."

He wondered, too, how Mourinho might react to a spate of setbacks, to which his success at Porto, and Chelsea to date, may not have accustomed him. The Portuguese has appeared increasingly vexed by referees, leading some critics to suggest he may be a sore loser. "He's been a coach for five years and hasn't lost many games," the United manager said. "It's been nothing but an upward curve for the lad."

All of which, including the mischievous use of "the lad" to characterise his rival, will count for little unless United overcome Portsmouth. Pompey were the last side to beat them in the Premiership, on 30 October, since when United have gone 16 games without defeat.

Ferguson, who may rest Roy Keane but will keep faith with Roy Carroll, confirmed that the fit-again Ruud van Nistelrooy will start today, and at Palace, following his 30-minute cameo against Milan. Alan Smith, also back after injury, is likely to partner him. Van Nistelrooy, Smith, Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha have been available together for only five matches this season. Now, at a critical time, United are up to strength.

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