Jose v Fergie: who will blink first?
After three seasons of predictability, this season promises a thrilling ride to the end
Sunday 24 December 2006
It was almost four years ago that Sir Alex Ferguson coined the phrase "squeaky bum time", but since then there has not been much of a peep in the Premiership. Arsène Wenger's Invincibles, with that unbeaten 38-game League campaign, were followed for two seasons by Jose Mourinho's Incredibles.
Ferguson has always regarded Christmas as the "start of the run-in". For five of Manchester United's eight titles gained under him they trailed going into the festive period before ending up in first place. History showed that it is not always best to lead from the front. But Chelsea have been rewriting history.
Since Arsenal were overhauled in 2003, with United seven points adrift on Boxing Day before embarking on a run of 15 wins and three draws, Ferguson's belief has been an idle boast. The attempts at a traditional charge have resulted only in coughs and splutters as his team hit the vapour trails of those ahead of them.
But that has changed. In the plethora of words uttered by Alan Curbishley on his return to West Ham last week, there was a telling comment on United. Curbishley, during his sabbatical from management, had visited his friend Ferguson at the club's training ground, Carrington, before the season started. "It was hard to put my finger on it," he recalled. "But I realised then from Fergie and the whole place that they were up for the fight."
West Ham went on to beat United, of course, in Curbishley's first game in charge. It was a result that was all the more galling for Ferguson as it immed-iately followed Chelsea's aston-ishing late comeback against Everton. From looking at a lead of eight points going into this weekend, United went back home a slender two ahead of the champions. It was a blue Sunday, and led to the bookmakers shortening the odds on Chelsea.
"This was the most crucial day of the championship race," claimed Didier Drogba, who scored the winning goal at Goodison Park, and who is the closest Chelsea player to Mourinho and often articulates his manager's philosophies. The striker reasoned that United will have mentally been awarding themselves the greater lead - and that will take its toll.
Drogba could well be right. If it was a contest of mental strength then it would be hard to look beyond Chelsea. But, knowing that he is in a stronger position than for some time, Ferguson will relish all this. There was certainly a glint as he laughed off Mourinho's jibe that Chelsea could already add another three points to their total because they will beat United when they visit Stamford Bridge in April.
But whatever happens from now until then - and until the final-day fixtures in May - there is something to marvel at: Ferguson's appetite and ability to refashion his team as genuine contenders. And also a side who are capable of playing wonderful, free-flowing, fluid football that touches the heights far more consistently than Mourinho's awesome creation. Maybe it is also due to Ferguson's belligerent desire to prevent the younger man matching his feat of three successive Premiership titles.
Certain factors have gone United's way, such as the astonishing re-emergence of Paul Scholes and the sustained form of Ryan Giggs. Also, crucially, Chelsea have changed formation, gearing themselves towards winning the European Cup, with the assumption that they can expect to grind out the Premiership. They have clearly struggled to integrate the increasingly forlorn Andriy Shevchenko and, to an extent, Michael Ballack, and often appear a collection of great players dependent on individual brilliance, with Drogba and Michael Essien the greatest of all, right now, rather than a team.
But there have also been some bold decisions from Ferguson, testimony to his enduring resilience and know-how, that have worked, not least the shedding of Ruud van Nistelrooy and the faith placed in Louis Saha, who has changed the nature of United's attack, providing greater variety and fluency. Ferguson's signings last January of Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, on apparently inflated price tags of £7.2 million and £5m respectively, have been vindicated with some impressive performances once they adjusted to the Premiership.
Weaknesses do exist. The arrival of Henrik Larsson, a clever bit of business, should address one. Ferguson's continued pursuit of Owen Hargreaves shows the concern he has in central midfield, where Michael Carrick, despite his undoubted talent and some good displays, has not yet justified that amazing £18m fee. United have recalled seven players, including Giuseppe Rossi, although some, such as Jonny Evans, who is wanted by Sunderland, will go back out on loan.
Another foray into the market is expected, with a £7m bid for the 17-year-old Gareth Bale, but he may have to be loaned back to Southampton. Werder Bremen's Miroslav Klose is trying to engineer a switch to Old Trafford, while Ferguson, who has been promised substantial funds, is also still monitoring developments with West Ham's unsettled Nigel Reo-Coker.
But it must be remembered that, well as United have played, and despite the impetus that has been created, they have not pulled clear of the champions, who are still not firing consistently. In the second half of last season Chelsea amassed an incredible 49 points. Ferguson must find a way to help his players to kick on, and the obvious solution is reinforcement. His bench looks by far the weaker.
Chelsea also have issues. Mourinho's priority is a defender. That may well be a right-back, and Manchester City's Micah Richards, Daniel Alves - though Seville have just extended his deal in response to that recent interest - and Valencia's Miguel have all been considered.
But concerns have also been raised about central defence, especially with John Terry's ongoing back problems and Khalid Boulahrouz's unconvincing displays. Further forward, Shaun Wright-Phillips can go, though he wants to stay, and Salomon Kalou is far from the finished art-icle. A lot depends, as with United, on a handful of key players, notably Drogba, remaining fit.
It makes the punishing Christmas schedule - four games in 10 days - all the more intriguing. Shrewd moves in January, as well as players staying out of the treatment room, may prove decisive. But at last it appears there is a challenge to the procession of the past three years. And that is something everyone can toast.
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