ALEX FERGUSON has conceded that Manchester City have become a "thorn in our flesh" and that Manchester United now view their neighbours as a genuine threat for honours.
Ferguson, in a wide-ranging interview during United's pre-season tour of the United States, also suggested that Roman Abramovich had made a "bold" move by appointing the 33-year-old Andre Villas Boas as Chelsea manager, while forecasting a challenge ahead for both Liverpool and Arsenal if they were to emerge as title contenders this season.
Having changed the face of his United squad this summer by recruiting Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea to replace players such as Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Edwin van der Sar, Ferguson insists that he approaches his 25th anniversary as manager in November energised by the prospect of a new team emerging at Old Trafford.
But, with City ready to spend big again in an effort to build on last season's FA Cup win, Ferguson accepts that he can no longer ignore his "noisy neighbours".
"There was a period not so long ago when they were actually in the second division," Ferguson said. "They were never a thorn in our flesh. Every year, we have had to contend with Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool. Nothing changes.
"One of them will always be a thorn in our flesh because you cannot change history. But it (success) takes the pressure off the manager and gives confidence to the players.
"We have experienced that ourselves and we expect them (City) to be challengers next year. Winning a trophy does a power of good."
Although City's financial power ensures their presence in the title race, the last seven Premier League crowns have been won by either United or Chelsea and Ferguson expects another stern challenge from the Blues, despite the inexperience of Villas-Boas being handed control at the Bridge.
Villas-Boas has taken the same path to Chelsea as Jose Mourinho, with both men tasting European success at Porto before being hired by Abramovich. Ferguson said the appointment was "bold", adding: "I think Abramovich likes to do that. You never knew whether Jose could do it at the time, but he proved a man of his time. But it was a surprise as he (Villas-Boas) is just a young lad.
"I started at 32 and all I had was a physio. The difference now is that he can choose a staff of whatever he wants. He's also got a lot of experienced players. Chelsea have got the most experienced side in the league with the number of older players they have got."
Ferguson appeared to discount Kenny Dalglish's hopes of restoring Liverpool to title contention by warning that the Premier League remained a "difficult league to win", despite forecasting a "big improvement" at Anfield.
Arsenal's hopes of ending their six-year trophy drought by dethroning United as champions appear compromised by the uncertainty surrounding the futures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, but Ferguson claims manager Arsene Wenger's problems run deeper.
"You thought Arsenal were going to have a real chance last season," he said. "They got to the very brink and that means they're going to be challengers this season. But it's not easy to win the league. We waited 26 years at one point and it's 20 years since Liverpool last won it. It happens sometimes. You've got to remember the way, when Jose Mourinho came, Chelsea all of a sudden just won their first six games in a row and we were all chasing our tails.
"We generally always took our time at the start of the league and usually waited until around February or March, but it changed our attitude after they won the league twice. It became far more competitive.
"So I think Arsenal have got caught in the draught that Chelsea created and, of course, them not winning the title for six or seven years has put a pressure on them. But it's cyclical. The Barcelona team is a team of its time and it's a cycle for them, a fantastic cycle, and you can't really see it changing for the next two or three years."
The summer reshaping programme at Old Trafford is, Ferguson believes, capable of putting United on an equal footing with Barcelona this season.
"They are a challenge," Ferguson said. "We will try to move on and get above them, but the target is to be in Munich (Champions League final venue) in May next year and only then, if it's Barca again, can we assess how we are able to cope with that.
"We will accept it. Barcelona played better than us the last time and this is the only way we can do it. We have lost five experienced players, but we have replaced them by bringing Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley back from loans and added Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea.
"We have actually got 12 players aged 22 and under with us. There are also some experienced players who are maturing and will carry the responsibility of performance. The young players will be desperate to get in their positions, so I think it is a healthy situation we are in." (© Daily Telegraph, London)