Gunning for United a hopeless task

David Platt tells how Arsenal were the last team to deny Old Trafford the title.
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The Independent Football

DAVID PLATT is uniquely qualified to talk about how Manchester United can be beaten to the Premiership title, having been an integral part of the last side to perform the feat, with Arsène Wenger's Double-winning Arsenal team in 1998.

On that occasion, the Gunners' attack was spearheaded by an enthusiastic and on-form Nicolas Anelka, bolstered in midfield by Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit and adorned with the nifty craft of Marc Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp. The team put together a remarkable run of 10 consecutive wins towards the end of the season to pip United to the post, and also ended the season with a league double over the champions. A 3-2 win at home in the November (in which Platt scored the winning goal) was followed by a 1-0 win at Old Trafford in the March. That victory, which was the second and arguably most crucial result in the run of 10 wins, remains one of only 11 home reverses suffered by Alex Ferguson's United in the entire nine-year history of the Premier League.

Unfortunately for United's rivals this season, Platt has a short and simple message to convey as they seek to end Old Trafford's Premiership dominance: You don't have a prayer.

"It was hard enough to beat them then, three years ago, but it'll be even more difficult to beat them this year," said the former England captain and striker, who supported United as a boy and began his own career at Old Trafford in 1984 before being released to Crewe the following year. "We managed do it, just, but they're a lot stronger and have only improved. They were world class before and they got better. And now they've added to the squad in the summer."

Asked to name a couple of key United players this season, Platt said: "Barthez, Stam, Keane, Veron, Beckham, Giggs..." He trailed off without needing to complete the entire squad list. "With the players they have, they can replace almost anyone with another player of great quality. I think they'll win the league and quite comfortably. And that's even if they concentrate on the Champions' League as a priority this season. They have the resources to do both."

So what was it about the Arsenal side of 1997-98 that allowed them to take United's title?

"The back four or five stayed intact and didn't concede goals. Anelka was on fire, Overmars was on fire, Vieira and Petit were playing fantastically well. I don't think we lost a match after Christmas.

"The 10 out of 10 was obviously the crucial thing, and winning at Old Trafford. I wasn't playing that day, I wasn't even there but I saw it on TV. United are always so confident there. They just keep coming at you. But you do start to believe after beating them on their own ground."

For all those positives, Platt insists that the Arsenal team in 1997-98 never really believed they were in with a chance of the title until it was almost won.

"When we started out on that run we were miles behind, we didn't think we had a chance. There was no special secret to what we did, we were just going out trying to win one match at a time. When we got to six out of six we started thinking 'Maybe we have a chance' and we started to believe. But we still needed to keep going, and then hold on."

The role of Wenger, Platt says, was not of a mercurial maestro who somehow inspired his team on, but a calm man who just asked his players to win the game ahead of them. "He was brilliant," says Platt, who has managed for himself over the past couple of seasons and is now in charge of the England Under-21s. "The manager is always important. But it really comes down to the players."

So which group of players outside of Manchester can lift the title this year?

"I think United will win," says Platt, again, "and Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Leeds have got to do something special to take them all the way.

"If I was in charge of one of those teams I'd be thinking 'You never know, possibly we can do it, finish above United', but at the same time I'd know that if we did finish above them, we'd have to win the title to do it."

And therein lies the challenge to the pretenders to United's dominance of English football. Take it one game at a time. And don't expect too much.