Laughable to call Chelsea a bigger club, says Ferguson

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The Independent Online

If the intention was to antagonise Old Trafford ahead of tomorrow's confrontation between his past and present employers, Peter Kenyon would have been profoundly disappointed by the reaction to his assertion that Chelsea will usurp Manchester United as the world's biggest football club by 2014.

Mockery, not fear, shaped the response from Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday. "We're really going to quake and tremble about that," he said, as the United manager placed more importance on a potential six-point lead over the champions than point-scoring.

Ambitious claims from the Chelsea chief executive have received little credibility from the Manchester United manager since his defection from Old Trafford at the start of the Roman Abramovich era and his latest declaration, that Jose Mourinho has helped manoeuvre the fastest-growing supporter base in the world, was dismissed in typical fashion as the Scot queried his motives before the meeting between the champions and their closest challengers.

"I know Peter," said Ferguson, laughing aloud. "It's a nice time to bring that out, isn't it? I don't know how they work these things out these days anyway. There are all sorts of different views on whether we've got 50 million supporters or 500 million. One thing I know is that we do have all these supporters because we entertain. That is part of the great history of this club and it will never change."

The United manager's emphasis on entertainment is salient given the pragmatic approach of Mourinho, though it is for more deep-rooted reasons that the Scot believes the nouveau riche cannot rival his club's broad appeal and stature. In his blueprint for the future, Kenyon conceded Chelsea lack the heritage that United possess but have the advantage of a unique "DNA" and "a brand that is more dynamic, more relevant"; talk that is anathema to a traditionalist like Ferguson.

As Abramovich discovered at the 2005 Champions' League semi-final, when he asked why the raucous atmosphere of Anfield could not be recreated in west London, passion cannot be purchased.

Ferguson added: "I can only go by experience and everywhere we go there seems to be a mass of people crowding around the players wearing United strips. I don't know what the barometer is of that and I don't know if anyone can really be accurate on how many supporters a club is supposed to have. There are all sorts of mythical tales about the people who support our club, but what I do know is we have a rich history and no one can deny that. We will have 76,000 fans in that stadium on Sunday and my only concern is, they'd better shout. I don't need to discuss how other teams go about their business, I am just concerned with United. We are going the right way, the best way."

Despite the intent from on high, Frank Lampard admitted Chelsea remain a long way behind United in terms of pre-eminence, but the England international does believe the structures are in place for the reigning champions to eventually take that mantle.

Lampard said: "That has to be our aim, doesn't it? They are a huge club and we know we aren't there yet. Whether we can do it remains to be seen. Winning the title three years running would be great. It would be on the way to matching what they have done, but we would need to stay there for a longer period of time before we can say that we've done what they've done. I think things are in place for us to do it. We've got the squad, we've got the manager, we've got the training facilities and we've got the ambition. The rest is down to us."

Away from the schoolboy contest as to who has the bigger club, Ferguson has urged his players to seize the opportunity to establish a healthy lead over Chelsea. He dismissed suggestions that his side's third consecutive cup defeat signalled a weakness in his squad but remains undecided as to whether Louis Saha will remain on penalties following his last-minute failure at Celtic Park on Tuesday.

"My players and the supporters should be looking at this as a massive opportunity," said Ferguson.

On the appointment of 35-year-old Howard Webb, rather than the more experienced but recently criticised Graham Poll, as referee, the United manager added: "We don't want to see players crowding round referees. We want to let them get on with the game and give him a chance. He's a young referee and I think if he's fair no one can complain."

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