Manchester United: A blip or something more serious?

Manchester United got the better of Chelsea in last season's Champions League final but so far this season it is the Blues who look the team to beat. With Sir Alex Ferguson's men behind in the league table as they visit Stamford Bridge tomorrow, they know it is time to raise their game. Ian Herbert reports

Still a few might-have-beens for the man who has accomplished so much. Sir Alex Ferguson was reflecting yesterday on his attempts to sign Deco before he left Porto for Barcelona in 2004 – "Was it £24m or something? We weren't going to get involved in that kind of value," the Manchester United manager muttered.

By the rule of thumb which Ferguson employed in South Africa this summer, when he said that he didn't "see outstanding progress in a team [Chelsea] who are in their thirties," the 31-year-old Deco – who flourished at Porto under Ferguson's old nemesis Jose Mourinho after Graeme Souness saw fit to release him from Benfica – will present no fundamental threat when United arrive at Stamford Bridge tomorrow to resurrect a season which has delivered them three points and just four goals from six games in all competitions. But three hours of football last Saturday showed up the difference that a Deco will make. No sooner had United's Paul Scholes and Anderson been blunted in defeat at Anfield, than Luiz Felipe Scolari's first acquisition was a rapier in Chelsea's quite brilliant display at Manchester City.

While Chelsea have batted away the memory of Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium and all that befell them there in May, United are struggling to contend with the legacy. You must go back to 1988-89 to find a season when they have found the net fewer times by this late in September – and that was from two games less. It is why Ferguson's suggestion yesterday that Chelsea – with two League points dropped – are not what they were now that Claude Makelele has gone and Michael Essien is injured was extraordinary. "They're maybe a little bit different now, Chelsea, without Makelele," Ferguson said. "He was a very important cog in their machine. The power of Essien isn't there. It's not what you would call a daunting task for Manchester United to go there with the ability we've got in our team. I think they respect that. I think they know fine well that Manchester United can go there and win this game."

But when Ferguson calls for calm there is good reason to hear him out. He asked for much the same last season when his side had mustered five goals in a similar period – look what happened after that – and the late return from injuries of Cristiano Ronaldo, Owen Hargreaves, Ji-Sung Park and Gary Neville has also given the sense of a side only gradually returning to sorts.

Ronaldo revealed in the moment he dropped a shoulder and drifted past Villarreal's Angel Lopez at around 9pm on Wednesday – his first act in a United shirt since Moscow – that this season promises as much as his last, even if it also happens to be his last. His presence is felt in more than the few square yards of turf in which he operates, too. He has the effect of making the entire opposing side drop deeper, making space – a commodity in scarce supply at Anfield – for the entire team. "When Ronaldo's playing and he's really really buzzing and he attacks people with speed, they're forced to go back," Ferguson said. "That was the case on Wednesday. He was on fire." The United manager will be less tempted to leave him on the bench than he was for this fixture in April.

But Ronaldo – "bursting to play, nibbling in my ear all the time," according to his manager – is the easy part. The £31m question is how the Manchester United manager might best deploy Dimitar Berbatov – back in the squad tomorrow after sustaining a knee injury at Anfield – with Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. Ferguson also declared in South Africa that he must define Rooney's role better after asking him to relinquish his favoured central role last season but the striker looked lost on the right wing where he accommodated Berbatov at Anfield. With Berbatov clearly the flavour of the month and Tevez in superior form, Rooney might be the one who gives way tomorrow. Could all four play together? "I suppose you could do that," Ferguson said, which seemed to be a "no". "You would be sacrificing a bit but you could do it. You were always disappointing two of them every game. There were a few occasions where I was able to play [Ole Gunar] Solskjaer as a wide player, but in the main I was always disappointing someone."

Though it would be wrong to present Wednesday's draw as illustrative of a crisis – the two penalties United should have been awarded in the first half would have cast the game in a different light – a repeat of last April's League defeat in west London would put them on the brink of one, at nine points adrift of Chelsea. "We don't want to be nine points behind Chelsea. We don't want to be nine points behind anyone," Ferguson admitted.

He is displaying rather more warmth towards Scolari – the man he calls "Phil" – than the Brazilian is revealing publicly for him. He refuses to engage in conversation about the way Scolari tried to nudge his winger towards the Bernabeu this summer. "He [Ronaldo] certainly listens to me now. I've no issues with that at all," was his last word on the matter yesterday – not exactly the response you expected when Scolari revealed, at the height of Ronaldo's summer romance with Real Madrid, that "you have to take the opportunities when they come along".

Neither did Ferguson venture much further into other controversies which add spice tomorrow's game. Patrice Evra's appeal next month against his Football Association conviction for improper conduct after a mêlée with Chelsea ground staff, for one. "It will be interesting to see what they have on the pitch after the game on Sunday," Ferguson said. "Maybe a combine harvester." Or the decision to rescind John Terry the red card he was shown at Manchester City. "What people were surprised with was the cynicism of the foul more than anything else," the United manager said.

Perhaps Ferguson, who has Nemanja Vidic suspended and Michael Carrick injured, feels he has said enough already. Those summer assertions about the age of Chelsea's squad – "'plateau' is maybe not the word, but how can Chelsea accelerate beyond what they've done up to now," was how he put it – threaten to haunt him as much as Alan Hansen's ill-fated talk about his 1995 "kids", and that might explain the sensitivity when it cropped up. "I said they were an experienced team. I said – and it's true – that when players go into their 30s, you don't get a lot of improvement out of 30-year-olds," Ferguson said.

So speaks a man for whom pressure is building again so soon. United's title last season was built upon pocketing 13 out of a possible 15 points against other so-called top-four sides until the visit to Chelsea. With one of those encounters lost already there is little margin for error. "A lot of people don't expect us to win, which is unusual for our club," Ferguson admitted. "So there's a challenge. Let's get on with it."

Three Questions for Mickey Thomas

The former Chelsea and Manchester United winger looks forward to tomorrow's game between the teams, and back at his career:

1. How do you think the game will go?

Chelsea are in very good form, Deco has been an excellent acquisition. After losing at Liverpool, United need to get something but Chelsea are unbeaten at home in four years. It will be difficult, but with Ronaldo back United are looking a lot stronger. It is them or Chelsea for the title.

2. Do people still ask you about the wink (a clip of Thomas winking after winning a free-kick for United against Spurs used to be on the Match of the Day credits)?

All the time. I didn't know there was a camera at ground level. I wasn't winking because I'd got away with a dive, just because it was never a foul. I used to get a lot of abuse from Tottenham fans but as a professional you have to get on with it.

3. What impact did going to prison in 1993 (for passing forged bank notes) have on you?

It was devastating, not just for me but my family, but it's about how you respond and I think I responded in the right way. I've learned from it. I think the sentence was unfair but it's gone now. I think my book* shows how life can change, one minute you are a star, the next you are in jail. It did mean I played for the best team ever – I never lost an away game for the prison side.

*Kick-ups, Hiccups, Lock-ups: The Autobiography by Mickey Thomas (Century, £18.99)

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