ALEX FERGUSON may be reluctant to draw comparisons between this campaign and Manchester United's historic treble-winning season of 1999, but, in one regard, the veteran manager believes his present squad are already superior.
In the wake of their impressive 1-1 Champions League draw at Real Madrid and ahead of Monday's home FA Cup fifth-round tie with Reading, Ferguson claimed that the present group of players are better than those who swept all before them 14 years ago – in terms of depth at least.
"Yes, numbers wise, this is a stronger squad," said the United manager.
"When we went to the 1999 Champions League final, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were suspended, but Henning Berg was the only injury.
"I still had to pull in a player, Jonathan Greening, who had played only once or twice, and he actually got a winner's medal for sitting on the bench. That gives you an idea of the respective strength of the squads.
"It's not just the four strikers I could change; you could change the entire team now. There were good internationals who weren't even involved on Wednesday."
In the 1998-99 season, Ferguson saw his team lose to Middlesbrough in mid-December and then go through the rest of the season unbeaten.
In comparison, the present team are unbeaten since going down to Cluj in a meaningless Champions League group game at the start of December, while their last Premier League defeat was at Norwich three months ago.
Not surprisingly, however, Ferguson refuses to read too much into comparisons between the respective seasons, insisting that United's next fixture is his only focus.
"We lost to Middlesbrough and we never lost again," he said, recalling the treble-winning campaign.
"It was a tough FA Cup run that season, really tough. We were up against Premier League teams in every round.
"I think it's nice to look back at these things and how it was done in that particular time with the squad of players I had, which is not nearly as strong as the one I have now."
Ferguson reported no new injuries from the last-16 first-leg draw in Madrid although 38-year-old Scholes, who missed that tie, has been ruled out for at least two weeks with a knee injury.
The United manager singled out Johnny Evans, who has started 22 games so far this season, for special praise. "He has been fantastic. If you get consistency from young players, you are on the right track and Johhny has given us that this season."
Meanwhile, Anderson is reportedly seeking to leave the Premier League leaders to try to force his way into the Brazil team before next summer's World Cup finals in his homeland.
Anderson (24), who signed from Porto for £27m five-and-a-half years ago, has averaged barely a dozen Premier League starts a season. (© Daily Telegraph, London).