As his side demolished Fulham to open up a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League, Sir Alex Ferguson declared last night that Chelsea have played into Manchester United’s hands by sacking Luiz Felipe Scolari and that the Aston Villa manager, Martin O’Neill, now offers more for him to fear than Guus Hiddink.
A peerless performance from United was capped by Wayne Rooney scoring with his first touch after arriving from the bench for his first game in five weeks, completing a 3-0 win. Ferguson later fell short of declaring the title was a two-horse race. “You can never be dead sure, but it’s safe to say that Chelsea have an uphill fight now to overcome us,” he said. “Things can happen. We were 12 points clear of Arsenal [in 1997/8] and we lost the League.”
But a repeat of that season, in which a Marc Overmars goal helped Arsenal to a win at Old Trafford to launch a turnaround, seems unlikely and Ferguson said in his programme notes that Chelsea’s decision to dismiss |Scolari had now left Liverpool as the most credible challenger to the champions’ crown. “I must say I was shocked that Chelsea should part so soon with a manager of such great experience and proven success as ‘Phil’ Scolari,” Ferguson said. “Their haste is a reflection of the sad way the game is going, with everyone demanding instant success and showing absolutely no patience in the pursuit of their ambition. They have played into our hands and the title race now is going to be between ourselves and Liverpool. However, I shall be keeping a wary eye on Aston Villa, who seem to have picked up the baton from Arsenal.”
The manner of United’s annihilation of Fulham came in stark contrast to Chelsea’s 2-2 at Craven Cottage six weeks ago and the goalless draw Fulham secured at Anfield. And though Ferguson still considers Liverpool, who visit Old Trafford on 14 March, as a threat to United’s bid to have overhauled their own tally of 18 League titles come May, he might have had Rafael Benitez in mind by declaring: “I hope we are beginning to rattle the other leading contenders.”
Hiddink must feel daunted today. United, 10 points clear of Chelsea, face three sides in the bottom eight – Blackburn Rovers, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United – before their encounter with Liverpool and their goal difference is five better than Chelsea’s.
“I would have thought it self-evident that winning prizes comes with stability and long-term planning,” said Ferguson of Chelsea’s troubles. “Yet so often, when a club is faced with a few problems, wisdom flies out of the window in the hope that a new man can bring about a quick fix.” Hiddink, Ferguson warned, “has to start from scratch, perhaps putting together his own staff and gathering round him players of his choice which may take him some time. Looking at the Chelsea situation from United’s point of view, I think they have played into our hands.”
Ferguson was able to reflect on Paul Scholes’ 11th minute opener, a first-time volley from a Michael Carrick corner. “Scholesy tries that corner routine every day in training. Sometimes he tries to hit me,” Ferguson said, whose side’s record of League clean sheets was extended to 14 games. The well-timed run which saw Rooney score within three minutes of his arrival was also something the United manager said he had seen him execute “many times”. Rooney was “back now and hopefully he stays back now,” Ferguson said.
Carlos Tevez has contributed to further uncertainty about his future at Manchester United by indicating that he will not know until the summer whether he will be granted a permanent deal, but this was a minor blemish, along with the sore heel which saw John O’Shea substituted.
“Hopefully, with the squad we have now, we can cope with injuries,” said Ferguson. “That’s been the change around, we have such a big squad we can cope with injuries.” To prove the point, Ryan Giggs watched from the stand last night, while Danny Welbeck scored twice as United’s reserves came from 4-1 down to win 5-4 at Wigan.