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Ferguson: 'I can win even more trophies with this team' - Premier League, Football - The Independent

Sir Alex Ferguson always wanted to 'knock Liverpool off their perch'. Today he can equal their 18 titles – and he says he's not finished yet

By Ian Herbert




So here it is then, the day which Sir Alex Ferguson has travelled through many dark footballing moments for, and it is unlikely that his mental images of how it would be to knock Liverpool "right off their ******* perch" and match their 18 titles, as he probably will today, included the rain hammering down on Carrington from the blackest of skies as he put in place the final preparations.

Neither did Ferguson probably expect, while running so many, many gauntlets at Anfield down the years that when the magical 18th stood just one point away, the 19th would actually seem far more important. That's how it is though, for football people like Ferguson; individuals who can never settle with what they have. "I'm not looking at equalling anyone," he reflected yesterday, ahead of Arsenal's arrival this lunchtime.

"The prospect of winning more titles with this team resonates with me far more than that. More titles can mean anything, but this team is young enough to win more. I'm sure they can do it." Such is the energy of an individual who looks like he has two years or more ahead of him at least. And who can blame him for feeling that way?

The new generation he has assembled at United gives Liverpool fans far more grounds for gloominess today than the fact that Ferguson – the man whose club trailed theirs by 16 championships to seven when he first walked into Old Trafford 23 summers ago – has finally reeled them in. Any satisfaction at putting one over on Merseyside was "a fan thing," said the United manager, preferring to dwell instead on those players, none older than 22, whose collective emergence has been a genuinely unexpected part of United's evolution this season.

Danny Welbeck, Federico Macheda, Darron Gibson, Jonny Evans and Rafael da Silva all earned an honourable mention. None, as Ferguson acknowledged, has yet proved beyond doubt that he can offer what the "dinosaurs" like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have done. But Evans looks like a United legend in the making and that Da Silva, Welbeck and Macheda have shown such potential at a level of football which, as Ferguson acknowledged, is "higher and harder" than that which Giggs, Scholes and Gary Neville cut their teeth on, offers grounds for substantial hope.

That is for another day though, whatever Ferguson chooses to say. Who can possibly believe that he "hadn't even thought about" equalling Liverpool's titles until "you lot mentioned it" – his claim to the press yesterday. The 2-0 defeat to Liverpool which handed Leeds the title at the death 17 years back, Liverpool fans outside the stadium asking for Ryan Giggs and Paul Ince's autographs, then tearing them up in their faces, lives with him still and when his work is finally done at Old Trafford he can say that he has placed United alongside them in days when there are Russian oligarchs around the corner and when every relegation-threatened side is fighting multi-million pound stakes to survive. Not the kind of preoccupations to have kept Shankly and Paisley awake at night.

"If you go back two years, our challenge was to catch Chelsea and I had to find the best way to do that," Ferguson said, of an achievement far greater than any nominal total of titles which might have been attained by mid-afternoon. "That will be the case when anybody challenges – how we cope with it, no matter who it is. That's what we do here. And no doubt it's more competitive. Teams have been taking points off teams that they wouldn't normally take them off." Fitting, of course, that the side against whom history might be made is Arsène Wenger's, who clinched the double at Old Trafford in 2002 but whose strangleholds on the English game have been fleeting. The latest deference from Ferguson told you he has seen them off, too. "They have had some injuries and you can't get the best results when your top players are injured. I'm afraid it's a fact."

The Champions League semi-final, as much as the 18-point gulf between the sides, demonstrate the chasm that exists, with Ferguson able to blood his new young group at a time when the last, assembled amid the Chelsea challenge (Cristiano Ronaldo, Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney among them) is reaching its fullest potential. Too often, Wenger's youngsters have been left to sink or swim.

Only one of Ferguson's 10 titles has been won at Old Trafford so all the more incentive to avoid complacency today, with Jonny Evans probably deputising for Rio Ferdinand, whose calf injury should be cleared up in time for the Champions League Final on 27 May, Ferguson said. "They've not so much a point to prove but in a way will want to register their abilities on a day when everyone expects United to win the title," Ferguson said of Arsenal.

But in the season when Rafael Benitez's personal challenge and the humiliating 4-1 Old Trafford defeat to Liverpool still threatened his place alongside them, Ferguson is the one with the point to make. His old footballing nemesis has been prodding at him to the bitter end, with Steven Gerrard beating his own players to the Football Writers' Association Player of the Year award this week. But he can brush that aside now. "The more important thing for us is what we actually win as a team. That's far better and more rewarding for us."
 

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Six unsung heroes: United beyond the superstars

If United take the point needed to clinch a third successive title today, it will represent a triumph for perhaps the greatest squad effort in Sir Alex Ferguson's 23 years at Old Trafford. He described last year's squad as his "greatest ever" though that was in a season when Cristiano Ronaldo, with his 41 goals, dominated utterly. Not so this season, in which injuries have been a greater factor and the unsung have offered much more. Total outlay on these players: the £4m paid to PSV Eindhoven for Park Ji-Sung five years ago.

Ji-sung Park

Only the massed South East Asian ranks in the United press room crave his name on the team-sheet but the South Korean has quietly increased his first-team role, starting more than double the 14 games he started in last season's title-winning campaign and adding goals (four) to his physical midfield presence. The opening goal, and his best United performance, in the Champions League tie at the Emirates, makes him a good bet for the starting XI for the final in Rome, having missed out on the squad for Moscow last time.

Jonny Evans

Ricky Sbragia has described him as a future United captain and Ferguson can delight more in Evans than any of his young players. Distinguished himself temperamentally with cool assurance in some major fixtures – his full league debut came at Stamford Bridge last September, he deputised comfortably for Ferdinand against Chelsea at Old Trafford and contributed in the goalless draw at Internazionale. Already seems to have seen off nervousness displayed against Porto at Old Trafford and has a youthful maturity.

John O'Shea

By no means United's most secure right-back, where he has deputised often this season, but so depleted has Ferguson's back four been with injuries to Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville and suspensions for Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra that only four players have started more games than the Irishman this season. Ferguson has cited his contribution often in the past six weeks and his spectacular Champions League winner against Arsenal was reward for reliability.

Darren Fletcher

Seemingly the only man who could score for United in August – he hit two of their three goals before the visit to Anfield on 13 September – and has been three times more prominent, starting 35 games against 11 last season, in Owen Hargreaves' prolonged absence. Form in recent weeks has been as good as at any time since breaking into United's ranks through the academy. The man of the match in the challenging Champions League game at Celtic Park in November; so, too, in the semi-final second leg and in the derby against City, rendering his Rome suspension all the more annoying.

Rafael da Silva

It was his Champions League performance in Aalborg in September which underlined his ability as a right wing-back of huge potential and though he looks, at times, less secure with the greater pace of the Premier League – Luka Modric was better than him in United's torrid first-half against Tottenham last month – he will present a challenge to Gary Neville, if the United captain does make it back again, and Wes Brown next season. Injuries have denied Ferguson a closer look at his brother Fabio.

Federico Macheda

A fleeting presence whose two league starts render him ineligible for a title medal. But he has had a major role in this success. The injury-time winner against Aston Villa at Old Trafford last month was, looking back now, a watershed. Without that and the winner at Sunderland as United stumbled through early April United would have been just two points ahead of Liverpool today, giving the run-in a very different complexion. Ferguson's masterstroke was to deploy the striker off the bench against Villa on the back of a hat-trick for United's reserves three days before.

One point away: Season by numbers

22 clean sheets

Manchester United have kept the opposition out 22 times in the league. Edwin van der Sar registered 14 consecutive clean sheets en route to a record 1,311 minutes without conceding.

18

Cristiano Ronaldo has hit 18 top-flight goals this term to lead the scoring charts again. The midfielder has scored 26 in all competitions.

3 blanks

United have failed to score just three times in the league - against Aston Villa, Tottenham and Fulham, all at their opponents' grounds.

5

Five players have seen red this season, Nemanja Vidic (2), Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.

44

Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez have collectively scored 44 league goals, compared with Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's 43 when United won a third successive title in 2001.

67 goals

Scored by United in the Premier League this season, compared to Liverpool's 72. No player hit a league treble this season.

4

Defeats in the Premier League this season. Liverpool have lost just two.

5 goals


United's biggest winning margin has been by five goals - beating Stoke (h) and West Bromwich (a) 5-0.
 
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