Ferguson has 2007 warning for title-chasing Chelsea

April 28, 2006

Sir Alex Ferguson is convinced Chelsea know they will face a much tougher title scrap from Manchester United next season regardless of whether they retain the championship at Stamford Bridge.

Ferguson takes his team to the capital knowing failure to become the first side to beat Chelsea on their own patch in the Premiership since Jose Mourinho arrived at the club will give the Blues back-to-back championships.

Having recognised their opponents' first title success in 50 years by applauding them onto the pitch at Old Trafford last year, the last thing the Red Devils squad want is to be an unwitting guest at yet another Chelsea celebration party.

Ferguson knows victory cannot be guaranteed against a side who have won an incredible 17 of their 18 home matches in the league this season.

So, while the Scot would like to delay the champagne guzzling at least until Chelsea visit Blackburn on Tuesday, he is wise enough to extol the virtues of his developing side while emphasising the actual result tomorrow will have no bearing on what happens next term.

'Our aim tomorrow is to get the win which would eke the whole thing out a bit longer,' said Ferguson.

'But our form over the last two or three months has told me, and my players, and all the other teams about us that we will be there next year. There is no doubt about it.

'I am very optimistic about the future. In terms of our overall squad, it is as strong as I have ever had.

'If we get a reasonable bill of health, we must have a massive chance because I have no doubt, had we not suffered so many injuries at the start of the season, we would have been there this season.'

Given his near 20-year stint at United includes two double-winning campaigns and the momentous treble in 1999, the Scot's assessment of his squad strength is telling.

With Roy Keane now at Celtic and both Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes the wrong side of 30, Ferguson will spend the summer searching for midfield reinforcements, although a run of 10 wins from 11 matches suggests there is not too much wrong with the Red Devils just now.

Ironically though, it is the one game in that sequence his side did not win, the incredible goalless draw with Sunderland at Old Trafford on Good Friday, which the United boss believes will have the most telling impact.

After grinding out victories against Bolton and Arsenal, to immediately throw away all the hard work by failing to beat the worst team in Premiership history was galling indeed.

But for Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo - both singled out on the night by Ferguson for producing their worst performances of the season - it is hoped the match provided an important pointer in their footballing education.

'Sometimes young players just need that final lesson before it really gets through and the Sunderland game was a reminder for everyone of what can happen,' said Ferguson.

'Winning games against Sunderland is just as important as winning games against Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea. Each carries the same value.

'But we were too individualistic. Hopefully, we can benefit from that next year.'

With Louis Saha back to full fitness again, Ferguson once again faces a selection dilemma up front after Ruud van Nistelrooy started the last three games.

Gabriel Heinze will not be involved after sustaining a minor groin injury on reserve team duty in midweek, although the Argentinian should be available for Monday's home encounter with Middlesbrough.

While Ferguson accepts United have little option other than to go all out for victory, he concedes Chelsea may adopt a more pragmatic approach, falling back on the defensive solidity which has brought them to the brink of following the Red Devils as the only club to retain the title in the Premiership era.

'Chelsea need a point and it doesn't matter how they get it,' he said.

'The strongest aspect of their team is defence, so they may set out with a system designed to get the point. Their main priority will be to get it over with as quickly as possible.'