Sir Alex Ferguson does not usually take kindly to England managers passing comment on the state of his Manchester United team and Fabio Capello's cutting remark yesterday on the diminished strength of the champions is unlikely to go unnoticed. The England manager said yesterday that "Manchester United were a war machine and have slowed down."
In a wide-ranging Christmas interview with the Gazzetta dello Sport, Capello virtually assured David Beckham of a place in the World Cup finals squad next summer and once again compared Italian football unfavourably with the Premier League.
It was Capello's comment about United – made in isolation without qualification – that was the most telling. They face Wigan Athletic tomorrow night after making heavy weather of their win over Hull City on Sunday and are five points behind Chelsea. They have not struggled anything like as much as Liverpool but the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo is evidently what Capello was hinting at.
As for the rest of United's challengers, Capello said: "Chelsea are fine but the others have got better – Arsenal, Aston Villa and then those further behind. The Manchester City of [Roberto] Mancini and the Liverpool of [Alberto] Aquilani will pick up speed. There will be an England team in the Champions League final."
Beckham had his first day's training back with Milan after the winter break yesterday and is eligible to play against Genoa on 6 January. His inclusion in his fourth World Cup squad would not be a surprise, but it was unusual for Capello to be so unequivocal about the prospects of a player who was far from a certainty to be picked.
Capello said: "Of course, if he plays well and is fit I will include him in my squad. I don't look at age, I pay attention to quality and David has a lot of that. He's serious, he's a great professional and he's crazy about the World Cup. He will do well again for Milan because he has a good head on his shoulders."
The England manager has drawn criticism from Italian football officials for his outspoken views on the state of the game in Italy before but he was heavily critical again. "I feel happy in England," he said. "The Premier League is the most interesting and fascinating league in the world. There is a particular ambience: full stadiums, safety, beauty. Take Newcastle: they were relegated and applauded. Now they are in the [Championship] and around 50,000 people go see them.
"The atmosphere in our game – the Italian game – is different. It is resentful, nasty.
"We always make the same mistakes. We don't improve, we don't move forward, we don't solve problems. This depresses me."
On the influx of Italian managers, Capello said: "It's a case of 'made in Italy'. I am happy for them, it's a good reason to be proud of our football. We bring ideas and a desire for new things, experiences."
*Sir Alex Ferguson believes Manchester United are a different proposition heading into the second half of the season as injuries start to ease. United welcomed back a trio of key defenders in Nemanja Vidic, Wes Brown and Rafael da Silva at Hull. Ferguson said: "It was a bonus having two centre-backs back – it made a heck of a difference to us. Hopefully in the next few weeks Jonny Evans will be back, as for Rio Ferdinand we will have to wait and see."