United look for perfect 10 as Ferguson seeks favour

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The Independent Football

Whatever this season holds for Manchester United, and barring a collapse that Chelsea showed no signs of conjuring up last weekend, it will hold only the Carling Cup, their players can at least claim to have regained Sir Alex Ferguson's trust.

Nine successive Premiership victories have infused United with such belief that their manager issued no rallying calls or instructions to his squad ahead of tonight's encounter with Sunderland, yet he still offered advice to those who may have a major influence on the title race - Sam Allardyce and "the good, honest players" of Bolton.

The United manager was preoccupied with the form and fortunes of his North-West neighbours yesterday, as well he might be. Four consecutive defeats may have damaged Bolton's European aspirations and his good friend Allardyce's prospects of stepping into the international arena with England, but it is their potential to derail Jose Mourinho at The Reebok Stadium that was of primary concern to Ferguson.

The Scot has earmarked tomorrow's fixture as the first of four possible pitfalls for Chelsea - Blackburn, United and Newcastle providing the others - and, though he faces a problematic journey of his own to White Hart Lane on Easter Monday, history is on his side. "We got the break in 2003 when Arsenal drew at Bolton," said Ferguson of United's last title triumph.

"We played Tottenham the next day, won 2-0, and that really put us in the driving seat. So there are similarities and hopefully Bolton can do us a favour again.

"Chelsea know we are there now, and they know if they do slip up then we will take our chance. Bolton is not the easiest place to go to and if Bolton draw or get a win, there will be a massive turnaround in the title race, although we have to make sure the gap is down to four points first. I still believe the title decider will be our game at Stamford Bridge. If Chelsea win or draw that game against us, it's really all over."

Though the reigning champions responded to the first genuine doubts over their leadership with an emphatic response against West Ham last Sunday, Ferguson insists the more impressive statement of intent arrived in United's later defeat of Arsenal. He added: "We expected Chelsea to win last weekend, but you have to give them credit for winning the game so well with 10 men. But it didn't put us off the job we had to do and that's proof of our single-mindedness now."

Ferguson will recall Gabriel Heinze to the substitutes' bench tonight for the first time since the Argentina defender ruptured his cruciate ligament in September, and the manager wants Sunderland dispatched to the Championship with a scoreline that would cut into Chelsea's greater goal difference. Ferguson said: "We've got to pay attention to goal difference because it may be important in the title race. We're eight goals behind Chelsea and we have to do something about that."