Forget El Clasico, it's El Climactico
Fergie confident United can seal victory to climb on top of league 'perch'
Welcome to the game beamed into 600 million households around the world, the summit meeting of the Premier League's finest and the game that could end with Alex Ferguson on the brink of making history with Manchester United. Welcome to El Climactico, the deciding game of the season.
Chelsea have the momentum, the manager of the month in Carlo Ancelotti and the midfield man of the moment in Frank Lampard. United have the three-point advantage, the manager of the past two decades in Ferguson and the man for all Premier League seasons in Ryan Giggs.
It is so evenly poised. How will Giggs cope with a revitalised Lampard? Can Didier Drogba muscle past Nemanja Vidic? Can Ashley Cole deal with the elusive zephyr that is Antonio Valencia? Will United be caught out by one of David Luiz's rampaging runs like a runaway Dulux Dog?
And should Liverpool fans retrieve their old Fernando Torres shirts from the thrift shop? Because if Torres, Drogba, Lampard, Cole and Co fail to win, United will close inexorably on a 19th title, shredding Liverpool's celebrated mark.
Ferguson admitted to a surprise that he has come within touching distance of pushing the Liver Bird off its perch. His aim on arriving at Old Trafford in 1986 had been simply to acquire a first championship for United since 1967.
"You don't think at that moment the number of titles we have gone on to win,'' reflected Ferguson. "Getting the first was the target. I got it. Since then the club has taken off. At that time, I couldn't envisage being here that long anyway. It's an exceptional period of time I have been here."
A quarter of a century. 'Take My Breath Away', the theme tune from 'Top Gun', was No 1 when Ferguson started work. And he had much work to do. United were second bottom and it took until 1993 for Ferguson to land the league title. Another 10 have followed.
"I don't think it means anything to me personally at all,'' Ferguson said of the thought of eclipsing Liverpool's record. "It's more for the club. It's like with the European Cup. You see the history of Real Madrid and AC Milan, and then there's another bracket, Liverpool, Ajax and Bayern Munich. We should definitely be in that bracket. Hopefully I can take that step towards that on May 28.'' Wembley can wait.
"Everyone is aware of the magnitude of Sunday's game and if we win we should win the league. We won't be going for a draw. Everyone knows that. Chelsea know that. Our fans know that. There's no point in discussing draws."
Talking of points, Chelsea lay 15 behind United (with a game in hand) when the teams met at Stamford Bridge on March 1. Chelsea's 2-1 win launched them on an unbelievable run and victory this weekend will take them top on goal difference.
Even for such a studious racing man, Ferguson was not up for any Devon Loch references. "I don't know how many points we were in front of Chelsea at any given time. It doesn't matter what happened last Sunday, four Sundays ago, four months ago, four years ago. We are where we are. We have three games left, three points ahead, same goal difference, playing at home, two home games and one away."
Ferguson was in confident mood, buoyed by the possibility of "a big-game player" like Darren Fletcher regaining his strength in time for the Champions League final, although he will not start tomorrow. Ferguson also believes he has the centre-halves to deal with whatever attacking combination Ancelotti selects. "No matter what they do we have the players to handle it. We have experienced players at the back in Ferdinand and Vidic."
His centre-halves should be flanked by Rafael and Patrice Evra in shielding Edwin van der Sar. Michael Carrick and Giggs should return to the centre of midfield with Valencia on the right and Nani or Ji-sung Park on the left. United hope Wayne Rooney will be fit after a slight hamstring concern with Javier Hernandez looking to elude John Terry.
Part of the reason for Ferguson's optimism is that his strikers are being well served by Valencia. "He's got fantastic balance, he's quick, he's got the courage to take the ball all the time,'' said Ferguson. "He's just a very, very good player.''
Ferguson also derives confidence from United's record at Old Trafford, where they have not lost since Drogba struck 53 weeks ago. Since then, United have won 18 and drawn one (to West Brom) in the league. "Our home record is fantastic, probably the best in Europe,'' added Ferguson. "The realisation that our away record has been ordinary has made us really step up to the mark at home. The criticism still was that we've not been great this season but we've scored more goals than anyone. We must be doing something right."
Ferguson admitted that his main concern was a refereeing decision going against them. "That's definitely our big fear,'' he said. "Other than that, we have the players to do it all right."
The refereeing team will be the World Cup triumvirate of Howard Webb, Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey in only their third game of the season in tandem -- and first since September.
Ferguson was full of admiration for Webb. "He's definitely the best referee in the country,'' said United's manager before recalling recent frustrations such as Chris Foy not giving United a penalty for Gael Clichy's foul on Michael Owen at Arsenal last weekend. "We hope it's our turn for a little bit of luck." Rivals will point to United's good fortune, notably Foy's failure to punish Vidic's hand-ball at the Emirates.
It promises to be tense at Old Trafford -- and probably a draw. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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