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Fergie has rivals right where he wants them


Sir Alex Ferguson

Sir Alex Ferguson

Sir Alex Ferguson

Six years ago on Tuesday a Chelsea side with Carlo Cudicini, Robert Huth, Tiago and Geremi were granted a guard of honour at Old Trafford as the league title made its journey to Stamford Bridge for the first time in 50 years.

Since then, Manchester United and Chelsea have passed the championship between each other as if by right.

But a much longer struggle re-presents itself when the two clubs collide today. When Alex Ferguson steamed into Manchester in November 1986, United had won the old First Division title seven times from 1908 to 1967. Liverpool had been the top team in England on 16 occasions. Today the score is 18 each, and a win for United over Chelsea this afternoon would almost guarantee their investiture as the No 1.

This battle has been going on for 110 years, from Liverpool's first home crown under Tom Watson in 1900-01. United got off the mark seven seasons later. Throughout Ferguson's formative years, the Liverpool sides managed by Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and finally Kenny Dalglish were pre-eminent, stirring in the young United manager a single early obsession: to "knock Liverpool off their bloody perch", as he said when that process was already well under way.

"So, you're down to have a look at our great team?" Shankly asked Ferguson when his fellow Scot turned up at Anfield on a scouting mission. Liverpool were always the royalty Ferguson would have to usurp. The obsession shifted when the red half of Merseyside fell away after their most recent league title win, in 1990, and first Arsenal under Arsene Wenger then Chelsea with Roman Abramovich's money became the new antagonists. But Ferguson has never taken his eye off Liverpool. The 2001 cup treble under Gerard Houllier made him wary and the Rafael Benitez team of 2008-09 came within four points of United in May at the top of the league table.

Spookily, Dalglish is back in charge of Liverpool at the point Ferguson looks likely to reach 19 [or 12 for him personally], with United's supporters unanimous that winning this season's Premier League would mean even more to them than beating Barcelona in the Champions League final. The Liverpool factor is at the heart of that emotional calculation. But if United were to win at Wembley, they would move to four European Cups, only one behind Liverpool. Targets still glitter on the horizon for Ferguson but they are thinning out.

To replace Liverpool as England's most prolific club would leave only Europe for him to break new ground. Victory over Barca would bring him level with Paisley's three European Cups. It would be a mistake, though, to assume Ferguson has a target list he is ticking off, or that the date of his retirement will be determined by trophy counts or bragging rights over other clubs.

The 19th title is a fixation, certainly, but he would still be in charge at Old Trafford this weekend if it had been achieved two seasons ago, because his reasoning now is that there would have to be an inarguable reason to call a halt, other than ill health, or other family considerations. He stopped thinking long ago about ages [60, 65] as landmarks that would dictate the length of his stay. His current logic is that he is surrounded by fine young players again -- in a fast developing team -- and there is no reason to walk away from that while the thrill of the reconstruction is still there.

"I am just concentrating on the three league games and Sunday is the most important one," he says. "You have to set the European Cup final aside. I said months ago that Chelsea would be our biggest threat. Nobody seemed to be listening but they had the experience and the strength to come through. For the last seven or eight years they have been our main challengers. They won the title twice, then we won three in a row and then they snatched it back and now we have this game.

"Ours was the biggest result of the week, getting into the final of the European Cup, there is no question about that. The European Cup is the trophy Chelsea wanted most of all and we knocked them out of that. We have played them three times, beaten them twice, and everyone knows what happened at Stamford Bridge [when Ferguson objected to the referee Martin Atkinson's decisions]. In terms of these games this season, I think we have been the better team. We have to prove that again."

Invited to compare the United-Chelsea duopoly to that of Barcelona and Real Madrid, Ferguson says, "It's a different culture, isn't it? Real Madrid and Barcelona was tribalism of the highest order. I was surprised how disappointing the two games were. You were waiting for one of them to be decent, but we didn't get that. It is a different culture here, there are no issues between us and Chelsea in terms of history whereas with Real Madrid and Barcelona history is a huge issue.

"Both teams will be committed, there is no doubt about that. It won't be easy for either side. We are used to this last-ditch stage of the season.

"We have won three titles on the last day of the season -- at Middlesbrough [1996], home to Tottenham [1999] and at Wigan [2008]. We always go to the last kick of the ball, although there was a time in 2000 and 2001 when we won by landslides, but in the main we are used to going to the last game of the season. We are used to it and so are the fans. Their fingernails are bitten away anyway. We should be all right with our experience. Chelsea have to win; a draw is of no use to them."

In this season alone Ferguson has had to manage the Wayne Rooney transfer-request drama, Antonio Valencia's broken leg and persistent injuries to Rio Ferdinand but has drawn improvements from Anderson [intermittently], Nani, Rafael, Fabio, Chris Smalling and most of all Javier Hernandez.

In this fixture last year United were on their way out of Europe, having lost the first leg of their quarter-final to Bayern Munich, and Ferguson says: "We were running on empty. In the first half you could sense our legs had definitely gone. Now we have given ourselves a chance by resting players against Schalke. The only one who was involved in both the Schalke and Arsenal games was Valencia and he only played half an hour against Arsenal. Because he's as strong as a bull, he'll be okay. I'm forgetting [Edwin] Van der Sar but he is Van der Sar, there are no issues with that."

In one grand twist, Ferguson has relied on a Liverpudlian [or Evertonian, strictly] to place Anfield's joint-record of 18 titles in jeopardy. His handling of Rooney during an apparently agent-driven kerfuffle in mid-season provided more evidence for Ferguson that he is still the master. "Everyone who gets on that pitch will be wired up for it. I've had the advantage of resting my team on Wednesday," Ferguson says. "I needed to do that. I've got them where I want them." Which is what he must be thinking about Liverpool.


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