Friday 23 March 2018

Routine United win stokes up the pressure on Chelsea


Another quiet week for Manchester United. Alex Ferguson's announcement on Friday that he would retire at the end of next season was downplayed. Of course, he had said the exact opposite which, given his record of misleading statements, is a signal to start preparing the farewell documentaries.

After 23 years, there is little Ferguson's Manchester United can do to surprise people but, as with Paul Scholes's winner last weekend, sometimes there is not a lot the others can do about the things Manchester United do.

Yesterday, they took care of Tottenham just like they have always done. Chelsea will have to beat Stoke at Stamford Bridge today to go back to the top of the table. It should be a routine win but there is nothing routine now.

Ferguson may or may not have been attempting to mislead the world when he hinted that Wayne Rooney will take no further part in United's season.

He missed yesterday's game with a groin injury which will, Ferguson said, take a couple of weeks to heal. United have two reasonably straightforward games to come but little is straightforward at this stage and nothing comes easy for United without Rooney.

"We are looking at two to three weeks," Ferguson said. "He tweaked a groin during a simple passing exercise. We will give him every chance because he is desperate to play, but we will have to wait and see."

United will be as desperate for him to play. They can glimpse their 19th title because they know how these things work in a way that Chelsea, even with all their experience, cannot understand.

Carlo Ancelotti delivered a zinger on Friday when he said that he planned to watch Clash of the Titans instead of the United game. The room erupted in laughter at the symbolism -- some of them are still drying their eyes -- and Ancelotti seemed pleasantly surprised to have made such a good joke in a foreign language, especially in England where they take comedy seriously.

He felt his side had suffered after watching United's victory last weekend so he went off to the movies, leaving the media marvelling at his comic timing. But it was the scoreline that affected them so unless Ancelotti is trying to prevent his side finding out yesterday's result -- something which may be a bit of a giveaway in itself -- then there wasn't much point in his trip to the movies.

There is little he can do to relax his side now. In fact, losing would probably be more relaxing than the sustained pressure that will come if Chelsea win today.

"We kept our nerve, there were no sign of nerves from any of the players," Ferguson added, hailing the performance of his senior players.

Ryan Giggs's first successfully converted penalty in the Premier League gave United a lead but Ledley King equalised before Nani and Giggs, with another penalty, ensured the points and made the race for fourth almost as gripping as the race for the title.

Manchester City's draw at the Emirates last night increases the tension. City play Aston Villa next weekend, and Spurs the following Wednesday, in games that will have a decisive bearing on their plans for world domination.

United have stayed at the top through the force of Ferguson's will and his refusal to allow the players to consider failure. If Chelsea win their remaining games, they will win the title but even without a trip to Anfield, that is a lot to ask. United are now messing with their heads, not through mind games, but through victories. But they might have to do it without Rooney which means they will have to do it with Dimitar Berbatov.

"Throughout the game he was marvellous," Ferguson insisted when asked about Berbatov's performance. "He's a great player."

Nobody is buying that one.

Sunday Independent

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