Fergie: It's a five-horse title race
Sir Alex Ferguson believes the Premier League title race is a five-horse affair and that it could take as little as 82 points to become champions.
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Not since Manchester United completed the last of their first hat-trick of championships a decade ago has any team finished top with so few points. On that occasion, 80 proved enough to see off Arsenal by a 10-point margin.
In more recent years, 90 points has been the aim, United and Arsenal reaching that figure once each in the past decade, and Chelsea breaking through the barrier twice under Jose Mourinho.
Now, instead of the bar being raised, rungs are being whipped away from the bottom, not just by title contenders Manchester City and Tottenham, but progressive outfits such as Sunderland, Bolton and West Brom, whom United visit on Saturday. All three have collected points from clubs expected to do far better, which is why Ferguson feels sights have to be trained somewhat lower this term.
"It won't be anywhere near 90 points this year,'' said Ferguson. "It will probably be 82 or 83 to win it, which is seven or eight points lower than Chelsea or ourselves in our best years. That is not an indication of Chelsea or ourselves falling apart. It is an indication of how strong the league is.''
So strong that Ferguson feels the current top five all have a claim on the trophy, labelling it "the dream league''.
Too wise to get drawn into a reaction by an observation from former assistant Brian Kidd that the title is now United's to lose, Ferguson is broadening the challenge as wide as possible. And that means there is no dismissal of Chelsea, who finally ended their winless streak against Bolton on Wednesday, and certainly not Tottenham, who are unbeaten in 10 matches in all competitions following their defeat at the Reebok Stadium on November 6.
"I have been very impressed with Tottenham over the last few weeks,'' he said. "They seem to have risen to the challenge and now they have momentum. Even with 10 men against Newcastle the other day, they still played an attacking style. With the kind of players they have, Defoe, Lennon and Bale, there are opportunities on the counter-attack. They are not without a chance and Chelsea will get back in it as well. They will definitely be challengers for the league, so you could have a situation where five teams are involved going into the last month.''
Crucially for United, they lead the way while still boasting matches in hand. What clearly needs to be addressed though is a continuing lack of success away from home. Another disappointing draw, this time at Birmingham, means United have still only won once on their travels this season, even though they registered three straight triumphs away from Old Trafford in the Champions League. It is that knowledge, in addition to his side's performance at Manchester City, that leads Ferguson to conclude his side do not have a major problem.
"We have several tough top-of-the-table away games - Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal,'' said Ferguson. "But those four games are maybe the type that will surprise people about us. It won't be a big worry for me to go to these grounds simply because the big-game situation is what we are OK at. You realise the concentration level has to be better, as it was when we went to Manchester City.''
Victory at the Hawthorns would be a positive way to start the process, and a good place for Wayne Rooney score his first goal in open play since March. It is a statistic Ferguson accepts could do with correcting, even though Rooney's all-round contribution, and his partnership with free-scoring Dimitar Berbatov, is improving by the game.
"Wayne does need a goal,'' said Ferguson. "He is not lacking confidence and his performance level has been good, we are happy with that. I am sure a goal will come his way as well. He just has to keep believing it will happen.''