Though he discussed gruelling final laps and looming finishing lines, there was only one tip Sir Alex Ferguson was prepared to offer yesterday and it did not concern his favourite for the Grand National. It was simply thus; should Manchester United clear the formidable hurdle of Arsenal tomorrow they will win the race for the Premiership title. As for the 4.15 at Aintree, he refused to say.
Having hauled his team to within seven points of Chelsea from the 18-point margin that existed at the beginning of March there is now a renewed sense of adventure about the United manager, who labelled his side's trip to Stamford Bridge on 29 April as a potential "league decider" and proclaimed the reigning champions as untested by the unique pressures of a run-in but stopped short of dwelling upon a comeback that would rank as the finest of his career. "We've not done it yet," he rebuked.
Ferguson has reason to be cautious, not only because he still grimaces at recollections of United's own collapse in 1992 when, having held the advantage of two points and two games in hand over Leeds United with six games to play they dramatically imploded in the final week, but due to the fact Chelsea could have restored a 10-point lead over their closest challengers by tomorrow night. Arsène Wenger's old adversary applauded Arsenal's imperious breeze into the Champions' League semi-finals - "They have been fantastic, although in my personal opinion Barcelona will win it" - and while he acknowledged they will represent a daunting threat to a ninth successive league win Ferguson believes victory at Old Trafford would prove a defining moment in United's season.
"It has got to be acknowledged that they [Chelsea] are still in the driving seat but the outcome is not quite as settled as it once seemed, especially if we can rise to the occasion with a win against Arsenal," said the Scot. "Indeed, I would go as far as to say that if we can beat Arsenal I believe we are capable of going all the way. We will see what Chelsea are made of on the last lap, especially when we go to Stamford Bridge almost on the finishing line."
Jose Mourinho's men have, insisted Ferguson, started to stutter: "And when you start to stutter in April it is not easy to get it back. Form is not like turning the gas on and off. I go back to 1992 when we lost the league in a week. The collapse of that was hard to take, it was sore."
As was defeat for Arsenal in the corresponding fixture last season, a controversial 2-0 victory for United that halted the Gunners' 49-game unbeaten record and prompted the "Battle of the Buffet" when Ferguson was struck by flying pizza. "It was difficult to take because it stopped the run," Wenger admitted.
Wenger has vowed to revert to a two-man attack at Old Trafford despite the success of a five-man midfield against Real Madrid and Juventus. He will perhaps be less than enamoured to hear that Graham Poll, Ferguson's favourite referee, has replaced the beleaguered Phil Dowd at Old Trafford tomorrow.
Though both Wenger and Ferguson are now striving for honours that are only aspirations at present, it demonstrates the strength of their respective 2006 revivals that Manchester United against Arsenal is suddenly en vogue once again. When the sides last met, in a goalless draw at Highbury on 3 January, it was without the heavyweight billing that has accompanied their duels throughout the history of the Premiership. Now reputations are being restored, with Wenger suddenly associated with European success and Ferguson having settled the issue of his future at Old Trafford.
The United chief executive David Gill said yesterday: "The manager's position has never been in question. It hasn't even been discussed. He will of course remain in charge next season."
* Tomorrow Arsenal (H)
* Friday 14 April Sunderland (H)
* Monday 17 Tottenham (A)
* Sunday 23 Middlesbrough (H)
* Saturday 29 Chelsea (A)
* Sunday 7 May Charlton (H)
* Tomorrow Manchester Utd (A)
* Wednesday 12 April Portsmouth (A)
* Saturday 15 WBA (H)
* Saturday 22 Tottenham (H)
* Monday 1 May Sunderland (A)
* Thursday 4 Manchester City (A)
* Sunday 7 Wigan (H)Reuse content