Sir Alex Ferguson declared yesterday that his Manchester United side will have a major claim on the Premier League trophy if they can emerge from the Christmas fixtures at the top of the division.
The United manager has always ascribed huge importance to his side being in touch with the challengers on New Year's Day and has won the English championship four times on those occasions when his side have led the way at that staging post.
Ferguson was extremely impressed by the manner of Manchester City's win at Newcastle last weekend but, on the third anniversary of Roberto Mancini's appointment as City manager, Ferguson made no secret of his belief that their hold on the title may be limited to one season. "If we are top of the league on New Year's Day, you know fine well – and everyone else knows fine well – that we're going to be in the ballpark at the end of the season," he said. "We know there are going to be challenges – it could come from Chelsea too – but I think City and ourselves will be battling it out."
The six-point lead at Christmas which United hold is something they have bettered only twice in Ferguson's time at Old Trafford. Both years they went on to win the title. The prospects of City making any inroad into United's lead over Christmas look slim, given Ferguson's run of fixtures. Tomorrow's visit to Michael Laudrup's Swansea City looks the toughest, given United's concession of 14 goals on their travels this season and that only United, City and Arsenal have scored more goals than Swansea at home. Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion then visit Old Trafford before United's trip to Wigan on New Year's Day.
Ferguson, who announced a new three-and-a-half-year contract for Jonny Evans and said he had not discussed with Paul Scholes the suggestion that he might retire after this season, was still looking forward to the prospect of facing Cristiano Ronaldo when United play Real Madrid in the Champions League. The winger would probably never return to United, Ferguson reflected. "I'd love to see that, but it's fanciful thinking really," he said. "First of all, how much would it take to get him from Real Madrid? And secondly, I don't think there's any chance they would want to sell him. But you never know. He may want to go to another club at some point in his career and I'd hope he would want to come here. But that's a long way off."
For his part, Ronaldo was quoted in the Spanish press as saying he would not celebrate if he were to score against United . "It is thanks to United that I play for Real Madrid. Without them, I wouldn't be the player I am today," he said. "I felt very good there, it was like a family. I had six great years there and am still friends with my team-mates."
A mile away from where Ferguson was speaking, Mancini made a similar declaration to his rival when he said that "if at the end of January we are very close with [United] we have a good chance".
Ferguson acknowledged the challenge revealed by City's 3-1 win last Saturday. "It was great," he said. "It's a wake-up call for us, too. I thought for the first 20 minutes [at Newcastle] they played really well. You see the stats from that game and it's amazing. Newcastle had more passes and shots on goal. But you watch the game and you say to yourself, 'I can't see Newcastle winning the game'. It's a funny game, football.
"We have every right to expect a challenge. I think that's what we are good at. That's why I'm looking at December as an opportunity to gather points and make sure we are top of the league come New Year's Day."