Old feud diverts Ferguson from the 'mammoth' task of chasing Chelsea

Manchester United and Arsenal resume rivalries at Old Trafford tonight
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The Independent Online

A little over a month ago, they were the invincibles of the Premiership, but tonight Arsenal return to Old Trafford with Sir Alex Ferguson claiming that Chelsea are the real threat to Manchester United's hopes of regaining their title.

A little over a month ago, they were the invincibles of the Premiership, but tonight Arsenal return to Old Trafford with Sir Alex Ferguson claiming that Chelsea are the real threat to Manchester United's hopes of regaining their title.

While Arsenal have imploded in the wake of their defeat by Manchester United in October, picking up a mere six points from as many matches, Chelsea have moved relentlessly forward, winning five out of six games and scoring 18 times. Ferguson confessed yesterday that he saw no easy way of pegging them back.

"Chelsea are everyone's concern now," the Manchester United manager said. "They are nine points clear of ourselves, five points ahead of Arsenal. It is a mammoth task to catch them. You know a blip will come but, wherever it comes, the important question is how they handle that."

Manchester United's own blip lasted two months from the start of the season. Curiously, Ferguson, who admits to being a better manager in adversity, did not date their recovery from the victory over Arsenal that finished their 49-game unbeaten run. The turning point, he said, came at Newcastle a fortnight later.

"We had terrible problems early on, taking players on the tour of America too early, losing players to the Copa America and the Olympics. Paul Scholes being injured was probably the best thing that could have happened to him because he, like Ruud van Nistelrooy, the Neville brothers and Mikael Silvestre were called to join us in America after three days' training. It was ridiculous but we had threats of legal action that forced us to do it. Supporters in America claimed they had bought tickets to see the best United team and went to the sponsors who were under tremendous pressure."

Had it not been for the flying pizza and Arsene Wenger's accusations that Van Nistelrooy was a cheat, tonight's League Cup quarter-final between Manchester United and Arsenal would not have provoked much comment. Their last meeting in the competition, at Highbury three years ago, was a non-event, notable only for Scholes' refusal to travel to London for what he saw as a reserve fixture.

Tonight's match is essentially just that, although the sheer quality of the 'reserves' and the shirts they wear have ensured Old Trafford will be close to capacity.

Ten years ago, Ferguson found himself pilloried for fielding a second-string side against Port Vale in the League Cup; youngsters of the calibre of Nicky Butt, Keith Gillespie, Paul Scholes and David Beckham.

Ferguson admits that the produce available from United's academy has shrunk in the subsequent decade, hampered by regulations that forbid clubs signing young players who live outside a designated catchment area, which would have had Beckham beginning his career with Tottenham.

"I don't think the academy system has worked," Ferguson reflected. "You have to move on and ourselves, Arsenal and Liverpool have begun to get players from abroad." The signings Gerard Houllier made at Anfield that Ferguson most admired were not Milan Baros or Harry Kewell but Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle, signed from Le Harvre as 17-year-olds.

If Neil Mellor, who would have gone to Sheffield United but for injuries to Djibril Cissé and Milan Baros, succeeds in tying down a regular place at Anfield, he will be the first product of Liverpool's much-vaunted academy to have broken through since Steven Gerrard in 1998. The cost of the academy at Kirkby is some £3m a year.

Wenger, whose academy manager, Liam Brady, admits that the "pool of British talent has shrunk", is naturally well placed to cherrypick young footballers across Europe.

Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie are already first-team material at Highbury and judging from their displays against Manchester City and Everton so are Mathieu Flamini and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, taken from Marseille and Ajax as part of what Wenger calls a five-year programme of harvesting the best and brightest in Europe. Andrew Lonergan, Preston's England Under-20 goalkeeper, is likely to be next on the list.

They will be needed, as yesterday Arsenal's vice-chairman, David Dein, indicated there are no funds available for Wenger to strengthen his squad in next month's transfer window. "Far from being in crisis, we have probably the strongest squad I've ever seen at the club," he said from Dubai. "You have seen what players like Cesc Fabregas and Arturo Lupoli can do and others who'll play against United in a sold-out stadium.

"The only thing you are sure about in bringing in big names is big salaries. That does not guarantee you success. Every club has to balance their books but Chelsea are a one-off and if they keep spending money there's nothing much we can do about it.

"But throwing money at the problem, with one star after another, does not necessarily solve it because by doing so you kill other stars. There has to be a blend. People had never heard of Cesc Fabregas before he came to Highbury from Spain."

Ferguson has, somewhat belatedly, followed in the wake of Houllier and Wenger, bringing in Gerard Pique from Barcelona's academy, taking Liam Miller from Celtic and Giuseppe Rossi from Parma. The latter is likely to start this evening, as will Chris Eagles, a genuine academy product in the mould of Beckham and Scholes.

However, much as this match will actually be Van Persie versus John O'Shea or Eagles against Gael Clichy, this is still Manchester United against Arsenal, still Ferguson v Wenger; the old feud rekindled. Asked if he would shake Wenger's hand when the final whistle sounded, Ferguson replied with a grin: "You will have to buy a ticket for that".

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