War of attrition
THE Premier League title is so obviously bound for Old Trafford that yesterday's 'Manchester Evening News' mocked up a photograph of Kenny Dalglish as a parrot, about to be knocked off his perch.
When it arrives, Manchester United's 19th championship triumph, the one that takes them past Liverpool, will be a hard-won affair.
And, should there be a 20th or a 21st, Alex Ferguson expects something similar. The days when Chelsea and United could amble to the summit of the Premier League with more than 90 points are probably over.
"It will be very difficult to get 90 points again because of the improvement of teams in the middle and towards the bottom of the league," said Ferguson as he prepared to lead United for what is expected to be a coronation at Blackburn this afternoon.
"What this season has proved is this is a tough league. We have dropped points against teams like Birmingham, West Brom, Aston Villa and Newcastle. We have lost to Wolves.
"Winning the league is always hard. I can think of only 2000 and 2001 when we have won it comfortably."
Should Manchester United win their final two games, they will finish with 82 points -- the lowest total by any Premier League champions for a decade. And the United side that strolled to the title in 2001 lost their final three games, with their manager embroiled in an acidic row with his board over what role he would play at Old Trafford after his retirement.
However, the 80 points they collected were still 10 more than Arsenal -- they had won the title by April 15.
Perhaps it is just as well the campaign has been something of a slog. On the three occasions United have won the European Cup, their domestic season has gone down to the final day.
In 1968, they lost the title on the last afternoon. In 1999 and 2008, they won it. Roy Keane argued that the easy Premier League successes at the turn of the decade led to complacency in the stands and in the dressing-room that contributed to premature dismissals from the Champions League.
In 2000 they won the league with 91 points and in the games before they faced Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the European Cup, they put seven past West Ham and scored four against Middlesbrough and Sunderland. Immediately afterwards, they took the title with a 3-1 win at Southampton. In between, Madrid easily knocked them out of Europe.
Nevertheless, the brutal way in which they crushed Chelsea's hopes of a comeback at Old Trafford last Sunday might end the theory that this is a United side that "lacks fantasy", to quote one of the more persistent criticisms of the champions-elect.
The allegations range from lacking the flair of the 2008 and '09 generation spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez to missing the drive and determination Keane injected into the 1999 side, as well as an increasingly glaring over-reliance on the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, both deep into the autumn of their careers.
"Well, you keep saying that but we have scored more goals than anyone else, so what more can I say?" said Ferguson, whose last encounter with Blackburn saw them win 7-1, a defeat that in part was used to justify the sacking of Sam Allardyce.
"We have had some great performances this year and some players have excelled.
"There is no question our home form (two points dropped all season) has won us the league. If we do it, it has been down to that. I don't think anyone in Europe has had that kind of home record."
Ferguson admitted it mattered little that United would not be presented with the Premier League trophy should they secure their point at Blackburn but, if they do, at least they will be playing football when it finally happens.
Because of the fallibility of their opponents, Ferguson learnt he had won his first and fourth Premier League titles on the golf course and coming out of a restaurant. Ewood Park will be awash with red this afternoon, with history in the Lancashire air.
Ferguson said he always knew, sooner or later, that Manchester United would overhaul Liverpool's record of 18 championships, although when he came down from Aberdeen in the November of 1986 they were nine adrift of the Merseysiders -- who were then on 16.
"Because of the history of the club, it would have happened at some point," he said.
"There is a good structure to the football club, we still produce young players really well, our scouting network is good so I think it would have happened anyway, whether that was this year, next year or in 10 years' time. The history and capability of this club would always have given us a chance."
Ferguson's dislike of Liverpool, his desire to "knock them off their perch" is long-standing but, if he wanted to gloat, there was no sign of it. Liverpool's ratio of two points a game since Dalglish's return will not allow for that.
"Liverpool will be galvanised next season, I am sure of that," he said. "Kenny has just signed a three-year contract and that will settle the club down and I am sure there will be plans to add to their squad. It just makes it more interesting next year.
"The league has become tighter and tighter. We have spoken for years about 'The Big Four' but it is wider than that now.
"Teams like Tottenham have not got back into the Champions League and yet they have had a fantastic season."
It is a trend the Scot sees continuing. Manchester City kick off their attempt to win the FA Cup and garland their oil-inspired revolution with silverware minutes after United hope to have confirmed their status as champions.
Though Ferguson insists he "does not care" who wins at Wembley, he even acknowledges that having two strong sides in one city is good for Manchester. The 69 year-old knows his noisy neighbours will continue cranking up the volume.
United were visited at their Carrington training base yesterday by athletics legend Haile Gebrselassie. To Ferguson, this team's ability to stay the distance is evidence that this side are, indeed, a great one.
But could he ever envisage Manchester United having a "fantastic season" without winning a trophy?
"It depends on what angle you take on that," he said before a long pause.
"No, I don't take that view. Winning trophies is the most important thing." © Independent News Service)
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