Mourinho adds spice to north and south plotline

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The Independent Football

Keeping apart the two loudest voices in English football once the business end of the season began was always likely to prove difficult, and Jose Mourinho put an end to the waiting yesterday when he launched his first attack on Sir Alex Ferguson. Round one saw the Chelsea manager strike back at Ferguson over his doubts that the Premiership leaders will be capable of sewing up the title in the north of England.

Keeping apart the two loudest voices in English football once the business end of the season began was always likely to prove difficult, and Jose Mourinho put an end to the waiting yesterday when he launched his first attack on Sir Alex Ferguson. Round one saw the Chelsea manager strike back at Ferguson over his doubts that the Premiership leaders will be capable of sewing up the title in the north of England.

The Manchester United manager pointed out last week that Chelsea have yet to visit either of the Merseyside clubs, Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers or Old Trafford itself. Chelsea finish their campaign at St James' Park which, although on current form is no fortress, is not a place any side would want to go to win the title. At the back of Ferguson's mind could well have been Arsenal's fateful trip to Bolton in April 2003 when they threw away a two-goal lead and lost their title within a month.

Mourinho, however, has done his own geographical analysis of United's form and maintained yesterday that it was certain "Manchester United will lose points in the south." He added: "It could be that we lose a lot of points in the north but they [United] lost three at Stamford Bridge and Portsmouth and two at Fulham. So for sure they have a problem in the south, but we will have to wait and see if we have a problem in the north.

"Maybe they are correct. Let's wait and see if we drop a lot of points but if we stay on top of the league then they are wrong. We are confident and if the next team to lose points is Chelsea and not Arsenal and we are five ahead, it will still be a good situation for us."

The Chelsea manager was even prepared to concede that his team would probably drop points over Christmas - "it's normal when you play so many matches in so few days" - even if he was not ready to acknowledge the tests that await them in the North-west. But as the second half of the season commences, with three key matches in the next week, Mourinho also admitted that he might allow himself one more raid on the January transfer window.

They are not expecting much sympathy from the rest of the Premiership, but Chelsea go into Sunday's game at home to Aston Villa with a squad of 16 fit players. It has become a matter of honour for Mourinho not to dip into his club's wealth before the summer, but without Scott Parker, Robert Huth and Celestine Babayaro, and Ricardo Carvalho doubtful, the Chelsea manager said that he might have no choice.

"If we do something it won't be a big buy. I don't need top, top, top players," he said. "Anyway, to get better midfield players than we have got already, I wouldn't know where to find them. We would need a stable player to give the midfield some help. Forget Joaquin, forget Defoe, forget big names."

While he prepares for the visit of Bolton, Ferguson has summoned back Cristiano Ronaldo and Gabriel Heinze from their holidays. The United manager is still without Ruud van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha, but it was the enduring fitness of another one of his first-team players that has become the key topic at the club this week.

These days there is very little that is impulsive about Roy Keane off the field, so his announcement on the club's television channel, MUTV, on Wednesday that he is considering a new contract will have been a subtle way of testing reaction at United. As the club's biggest earner, on more than £3m a year, the prospect of signing Keane beyond his 35th birthday would not necessarily elicit automatic approval from the United board.

"I'm not surprised [with Keane] the way he is playing," Ferguson said. "His best form of the season has been the last few games - absolutely brilliant - with that kind of form why would you want to think any other way. If he's playing with that kind of form of course [United would re-sign him]."

Overshadowing the new year for Arsène Wenger is the prospect of entering the January transfer window with Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Edu and Jermaine Pennant all in the last six months of their contracts. The Arsenal manager, whose side face Fulham at Highbury on Sunday, said that he expected talks to begin again with those players at the start of next month.

Last season, Arsenal launched their title-winning burst from second place and a point behind United at the halfway stage. After Fulham, they face Newcastle on Wednesday - the first of four remaining trips they have this season to the north of England in their quest to close the five-point gap on Chelsea. Whatever happens in the north, Arsenal's biggest test, however is sure to be the visit to Stamford Bridge on 20 April.

FESTIVE FIXTURES FOOTBALL'S GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

25 years ago

Tottenham's bleak Christmas

Tottenham's players and fans went through a Christmas to forget after losing 5-0 at home to Arsenal on 23 December. "We were going through a bad run and they were better than us. It took years to get over it," said Steve Perryman, the long-time Tottenham captain and now Exeter City's director of football. "It was about self-discipline. It still is to an extent, but then we were only given advice at Christmas because they were worried about us over-eating. Now players are even given advice for the off-season. We trained Christmas Day but I didn't mind that. The traffic was light, it got you out of a stuffy house, it was only for a few hours and meant you had earned your Christmas dinner."

50 years ago

Hickson's Christmas crackers

Everton's Dave Hickson did not mind going without his Christmas dinner in 1954 when he scored twice at Molineux against then-mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers. Two days later he scored again at Goodison Park as newly promoted Everton completed an impressive double over Wolves, the reigning champions. "There was always a special atmosphere to the games but Christmas didn't mean much if you were a player - except for a couple of lads who wouldn't play for religious reasons," Hickson, now 75, recalled this week. "I went without Christmas dinner for years, but as I didn't smoke or drink it wasn't too great a hardship for me."

75 years ago

Three games in four days

In 1929 a hectic programme remained the norm, with Manchester United, like most clubs, playing three games in four days. Having drawn at home to Birmingham on Christmas Day, they won at St Andrew's on Boxing Day, then had 24 hours' rest before putting five past Newcastle at Old Trafford on the 28th.

100 years ago

Rare day of rest

Christmas Day fell on a Sunday in 1904 so no matches took place on the day itself. This was a relief to the players - two years earlier they had been asked to play three days in succession: 25, 26 and 27 December. Some still played three in four days. Travelling by train and horse-drawn cabs Everton, having drawn at home to Manchester City on 24 December, won at Wolves on the 26th and Derby on the 27th.

125 years ago

Christmas Cup matches

League football was still nine years away in 1879, but the FA Cup ran through the season with several second-round ties in Christmas week, notably the 4-1 victory by the 1875 winners, the Royal Engineers, over Upton Park on 23 December. Teams travelled by steam and horse power. Players were amateur in theory, but in practice the likes of Nottingham Forest, who made the semi-finals, Blackburn Rovers and Darwen, were paying their players well enough to attract Scots across the border.

Glenn Moore

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