United must catch Chelsea by end of year, says Ferguson

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In his most candid acknowledgement yet of the deficit that has developed between his side and the League leaders, Sir Alex Ferguson believes Manchester United must close the gap on Chelsea from eight points to two by the New Year, with the added workload of the World Club Championship in Japan impeding attempts to do so.

Though United have a game in hand, their 13-point inferior goal difference – never a factor he has to contend with in championship winning years – adds to the size of the task, even though Villa Park, which United visit today, is the ground where they have most prospered in recent times. United are bidding for their 12th consecutive Premier League triumph and their 23rd since the Premier League was formed. It says everything for Villa's woes that Gabriel Agbonlahor's goal in the 4-1 defeat last season was the first time Villa had put a goal past United in six years.

Ferguson's injury worries show no sign of abating, either. Confirming that Wes Brown will probably be missing until next year having undergone exploratory surgery on his ankle and that there is only a slight chance that Dimitar Berbatov's hamstring strain will leave him available by the derby game tomorrow week, Ferguson also considers Rio Ferdinand "very doubtful" for today because of his back strain.

No wonder he was focusing on getting players back. The success of 21-year-old Fraizer Campbell, loaned to Spurs for a year in the deal with brought Berbatov to Old Trafford, has prompted suggestions of a permanent deal but Ferguson said he was keeping options open on bringing him back as early as January. "It's a possibility," Ferguson said. "When we agreed to let him go they didn't have anyone, they were short of numbers, so they said. That's why we agreed to it, to get the deal through with Berbatov."

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