London rivalry baffles United

For once Sir Alex Ferguson was stumped when the former West Ham manager Alan Pardew dropped in to see him this week and they began discussing the peculiar intensity of Manchester United's games at Upton Park which, Pardew told him, get Hammers fans more worked up than the arrival of either Arsenal or Tottenham.

Perhaps the rivalry is borne of the vitriolic reception Paul Ince received from West Ham fans for years after he had moved to United; or else the east London club's knowledge that twice, in 1992 and 1995, they killed United's title hopes in the home stretch. "I've no idea. I can only throw ideas out," Ferguson said yesterday. "I could be a million miles out. I just know it's unusual."

United have only one win in their last nine visits to the capital and they will find Gianfranco Zola's West Ham confident and injury-free tomorrow, while Cristiano Ronaldo will have memories of his missed penalty in last season's 2-1 defeat at West Ham.

However, that defensive record of theirs – no goals conceded in 12 Premier League games – is intact and though Wayne Rooney will be on the bench at best, Ferguson said he is "prepared to take this team anywhere at the moment, with the form of the team as it is, I would be". This is, he justifiably said, "a great moment, a great period we are going through".

The recent plaudits have been reserved for that defence of his and the burgeoning Dimitar Berbatov, but United's man of the moment is the unsung Michael Carrick, whose six years at West Ham propelled him on his way in football. In many respects, the 27-year-old is Old Trafford's anonymous man; the one left behind in Manchester during international breaks like next week's, whose No 16 you don't tend to see adorning replica shirts.

Ferguson yesterday compared Carrick to Dennis Irwin – both "the quieter types [who] sometimes get overlooked by fans and the press," as he put it. Irwin, Ferguson recalled, "used to give me eight or nine out of 10 performances every week. But he didn't have the celebrity status of others round about him – like Ryan [Giggs], David Beckham, Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes. He was a quiet lad who went about his business. Michael Carrick may come into that category." The quality of Carrick's distribution has never been in question, though he has added a defender's vision to it this season.

Ferguson was less effusive about Michel Platini's declaration, this week, that Uefa plans to financially regulate its own competitions, including imposing a salary cap based on wages as a percentage of turnover. "I'd need three years to work that one out," Ferguson said. "It's a fact of life. How do you stop people from earning money? It's difficult. Progress is progress."

Patrice Evra is still not fully fit after a foot injury and can only expect a place on the bench tomorrow, while Gary Neville has been hit by a virus.

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