Wenger stokes Ferguson's fire

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The Independent Football

Arsene Wenger denied having said it, but the Arsenal manager's alleged comments were all it took to reignite the traditional war of words with Sir Alex Ferguson nine days before Manchester United collide with the Premiership leaders at Old Trafford.

Clearly stung by Wenger's assertion, made on French television, that his club will never again achieve the dominant status they held in English football between 1999 and 2001, Ferguson yesterday made light of the nine points that separate the two rivals and claimed, in turn, that his squad could go on to eclipse the achievements of United's treble-winning vintage.

"I don't think he [Wenger] believes that - he's hoping that," Ferguson said. "We are building a new team, nothing like the 1999 team, it may be even better - Ronaldo, Rooney, Fletcher, all these players growing up together, Ferdinand at his age.

"Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. But I don't see this season as being dead at all for us, not a bit. In football, we all know and as we experienced in '97, you can be doing so well, flying. Then all of a sudden you lose a couple of games and that can change everything."

Wenger, who celebrates eight years at Arsenal on Tuesday, said later: "I don't want to deny things I did not say because that is an endless game. If I say something I stand up for it, but this is unfair. I said that Liverpool were the team of the 1980s, Manchester United were the team of the 1990s and it's open to us to be the team of this decade.

"We have a chance to be that dominant team in this decade because we have already won the championship twice. It's all to be done, it's as simple as that, but there is Chelsea, Newcastle and Liverpool as well. We are far from having done what United or Liverpool did."

Wenger claimed his team's minds were set firmly on today's match at Aston Villa. He said: "I don't even think about United because we are playing Villa. Not one of my players is thinking about the United game. Where we are is because we are capable of doing that. Why worry about United, when we could lose today and on Wednesday in the Champions' League? Then we would be in bad shape. Let's win today and after that move on to the next game.

Ferguson, preparing for today's visit to Birmingham, issued a ringing endorsement for his squad. "They are 18, 19, 20, so it is difficult to say when they will peak," he said of his emerging players. "You would think it would be in five years' time, they will be exceptional players. We've got a good, strong squad and there is no reason why they can't go on and do really well.

"There are a lot of young players around - Eagles, Spector, Richardson - a nucleus of players growing up together. That's what we like.

"We have 23 players and there is only one who you have to worry about his age. Then when that one is Roy Keane, you say to yourself, why should you worry about his age when he's playing like a young thing? We're happy with the way the ages of the squad are structured."

Ferguson will make "two or three changes" for the visit to St Andrew's. Paul Scholes has recovered from a groin injury and is set for his first action since playing against Liverpool on 20 September, while United looks certain to start with Ferdinand and Rooney.

Ferguson is also likely to pitch Louis Saha back into the Premiership fray. The French striker, who suffered a knee injury while playing for France, has had two impressive outings in the reserves. Saha's return means United now have Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney and Alan Smith all vying for places in attack.

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