Giggs and Ronaldo escape bans for fracas

Less than 24 hours after his side were defeated in their critical top-of-the-Premiership meeting with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Manchester United's manager felt sufficiently confident of his resources to welcome the west London team's arrival at the top of the English game. The subtext, of course, was that they would not be there by the end of the season.

The exhalations from Highbury would have been of a different variety, but there were huge sighs of relief at Old Trafford last night as Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo escaped with small fines for their parts in the fracas with Arsenal on 21 September.

After a hearing lasting almost five hours at a Heathrow hotel, Giggs received a £7,500 punishment, while Ronaldo must find £4,000. Both were found guilty of improper conduct and warned as to their future behaviour, but the relatively paltry fines compared to the combined nine-match bans handed down to Lauren, Martin Keown and Ray Parlour, as well as the £175,000 fine slapped on Arsenal, indicate that the FA felt the United duo's indiscretions were minor.

While television caught Giggs and Ronaldo involved in scuffles after the final whistle, both claimed they were acting in defence of Ruud van Nistelrooy, whose last-minute penalty miss brought manic celebrations from Arsenal players.

Rarely has a fine been so welcomed, and it capped off a good news day all round for Manchester United. Less than 24 hours after his side were defeated in their top-of-the-Premiership meeting with Chelsea, their manager felt sufficiently confident of his resources to welcome the west London team's arrival at the top of the English game. The subtext, of course, was that they would not be there by the end of the season.

Speaking at the announcement of Vodafone's renewal of its club sponsorship ­ it will put £36m into United over the next four years, a 20 per cent increase on the four-year deal which ends this season ­ Ferguson maintained that his team's battle-hardened qualities would see them prevail as they sought to defend their Premiership title against new contenders.

"Obviously, I think there's a good challenge now. I'm actually quite pleased that Chelsea are top of the League at this moment in time. I think that maybe people were getting fed up with Arsenal and Manchester United all of the time. But I do think once you get to the turn of the year ­ February, March and April, where we historically do well ­ it will be a very testing time for everyone," he said.

While Ferguson was maintaining the party line over United's prospects on the field, the club's chief executive, David Gill, was accentuating the positive with regard to the club's situation in the boardroom, playing a straight bat to the suggestion that his recent visit to Miami to speak to the American Malcolm Glazer, who has subsequently raised his stake in the club to almost 15 per cent, was prompted by any sense of disquiet over the club's vulnerability to a takeover bid.

"I don't think it's a little disquiet at all," Gill said, adding that it was club policy to make themselves available to all major shareholders. He included in that category the Irish racehorse magnates J P McManus and John Magnier, who have built up a 23.2 per cent stake in United after buying out BSkyB's 10 per cent holding last month.

Gill said that the Irish pair had expressed no interest in taking over the club, and suggested that they would have no wish to do anything which might jeopardise the efficient running of an institution which made £173m last year.

On the subject of Ferguson's as yet unsigned contract, Gill said: "There's no pressure on us, neither party has a deadline for it. Both parties want it to happen and therefore it will happen. The discussions are progressing very, very satisfactorily."

Ferguson concurred, adding with a wolfish smile as he looked across to Gill: "I was in the United States the previous week, and David was in America last week, so I think that's been the problem. It's not a problem with the contract, it's a problem with time. So we're not far away, are we?"

There were scowls, however, when the inevitable subject of Rio Ferdinand cropped up. It was revealed yesterday that the defender will face a hearing on 18 December into his failure to take a drugs test in September, but Gill was again quick to emphasise that the club had done nothing wrong in allowing him to carry on playing while the FA's investigations continued.

The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, has already urged the FA to take tough action and even suggested that if Ferdinand's guilt was established, United should lose all the points they have gained ­ 15 ­ since the offence was committed.

"Frankly, it is an incomprehensible statement by Sepp Blatter," Gill said. "He is entitled to his opinion but we are not worried by his comments because the FA have said we are entitled to play Rio under the current rules. You can't retrospectively change those rules."

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