Sir Alex Ferguson virtually wrote off Chelsea's chances of winning the Premier League yesterday after his team racked up a record-breaking 13th clean sheet in their 1-0 win over West Ham. It leaves United two points ahead of Liverpool with a game in hand and seven ahead of Luiz Felipe Scolari's side, who stumbled to a goalless draw at home to Hull City on Saturday.
Ferguson said: "It is going to be difficult for Chelsea, it is fair to say. But in the context of football as we know it, mistakes can be made. We had an 11-point lead over Arsenal in 1998 and lost it. We are not counting our chickens and we don't think we should because this game can come and bite you. We are saying in the dressing room this is a fantastic result and performance. It is time to kick on."
Ferguson paid tribute to Ryan Giggs, whose goal was his first in the league this season and means he has scored in every Premier League season since the first in 1992-93. "I always felt one goal would be enough," Ferguson said. "We have a challenge in terms of all the clean sheets we are keeping. It is a great motivation for the players, particularly for Edwin. He has everyone jumping out of their skin at the moment because of the record. When you have that foundation, you are always hoping one of your skilful players can win the game for you, Cristiano Ronaldo or Dimitar Berbatov. This time it was Ryan.
"I am searching my memory bank for the last time he scored with his right foot. I think it was against Coventry 12 years ago. Of all the things. He is a credit to the game. If anyone wants an example of how to dedicate themselves to football, you could have no greater example than Ryan Giggs."
The clean sheet for Van der Sar meant that he surpassed the British goalkeeping record of 1,155 minutes without conceding, set by Bobby Clark for Aberdeen in the Scottish first division during the 1970-71 season. United's record now stands at 1,212 minutes unbeaten. Ferguson said: "Clean sheets are going to be a topic but it doesn't change the emphasis on our game. We've played some fantastic possession football.
"What the back four are doing is focusing and concentrating on their jobs. They've got pace, they're quick and, of course, we've got a goalkeeper in Edwin van der Sar who is just fantastic. I'm proud for Edwin. At his age he has achieved everything, but you can see the way he is motivated by the challenge of the clean sheets and it's an extra edge."
Van der Sar said: "It's down to hard work from everybody. Of course you make a couple of saves but the defenders are incredible. Everybody tracks back and it's a team effort.
It's fantastic and I'm very happy with it, but the main thing is we're back on top – let's hope we can stay there."
Ferguson added: "Ryan and Paul Scholes have been here so many times and know exactly what kind of temperament you need. Michael Carrick, Carlos Tevez and Rio Ferdinand are former players here, that also helps to handle the atmosphere. The fans always get behind their side. We've beaten a very good team."
Gianfranco Zola said that his players' performance outweighed the disappointment of the defeat. "We were playing against the best team in Europe, if not the world," he said, "and we just lost by one goal in a very tight match. I am happy for my team because it has been another step forward for them despite the result."