Mar 30, 2011

Premier League stronger, not weaker - Fergie

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Sir Alex Ferguson has rejected claims that the Premier League has seen a decline in quality and, though he acknowledges how difficult it would be, remains cautiously optimistic about Manchester United's chances to repeat the Treble won by the club in 1999.

Just ten points separate 7th and 20th in the Premier League and, speaking exclusively to ESPN at the announcement of United's five-game summer tour of the United States, Ferguson pointed to the form of his club as an indicator of the division's merits this season.

"Away from home we have been disappointing but then you have to say that, maybe, this league is getting tougher than we think and the top teams are not getting it as easy as they did in the past. I think it emphasises the strength of the league rather than the weakness of it."

With eight games to go, United enjoy a five-point lead at the top of the table and although Arsenal have a game in hand, Ferguson's men are favourites to claim their fourth title in five years. Ferguson realises that there will be tests ahead but has backed his players to succeed in the best traditions of the club.

"The run-in is always going to be difficult. It doesn't matter where we play, whether it is away from home or at home. You saw it last game against Bolton, we didn't score until the last kick of the ball but that's typical of Manchester United. They have got that in their history, they're a team that never gives in."

United remain in contention for three trophies, despite the problems they have encountered this season. Indeed, Ferguson suggested had it not been for the injuries that have affected his squad throughout the campaign, their position could be even stronger.

"We're in everything. We're in the semi-final of the FA Cup, we're in the quarter-finals of the Champions league and we're top of the league so, statistically, we're doing great. I would analyse it this way: I think we've done exceptionally well considering the injuries we have carried. We have had players out for long periods."

While many have complained about the scheduling of internationals at this stage of the season, Ferguson admitted recently that the break was welcome for his injury-hit squad. Nemanja Vidic returned to action for Serbia on Tuesday, a timely boost for the United boss, who bemoaned the lack of resources available to him at the back.

"We've had long-term injuries to Rio Ferdinand, young Rafael has had injuries, Wes Brown, all the defenders have carried injuries right through the season and the only one who has actually kept fit has been Chris Smalling, who has been available for every game and he has been absolutely outstanding, he's been absolutely brilliant."

United return to action on Saturday at West Ham in the first of seven games the club will play in April and Ferguson knows the challenge his side will face at Upton Park.

"We expect a tough game at West Ham. Any team down the bottom doesn't want to go down because the only place you make money is in the Premier League. They have improved their form a little bit recently and, hopefully, we get the result we want."

Four days later, United will be back in London to face Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions league quarter-finals. Ferguson's men have not won at Stamford Bridge since April 2002 and enter the game having lost three in a row to the current Premier League champions.

Each defeat featured controversial refereeing decisions with disputed goals by John Terry and Didier Drogba settling league fixtures last season and, earlier this month, a hotly-contested penalty earning Chelsea three points after David Luiz was fortunate to escape a second yellow card. Ferguson is hoping for a change of fortune.

"In the last few games, we have had terrible decisions against us. You've just got to be careful that you don't have paranoia about it. Ability-wise, we're a good team. We played exceptionally well at Chelsea the last game, we were very, very unlucky. We didn't deserve to lose."

Ferguson's comments about Martin Atkinson following the latest Stamford Bridge encounter led to The FA suspending him from the touchline for five games and he feels that he has been disciplined simply for saying what he is thinking.

"If you speak your mind, it's a problem in the game. (The FA) is very strong in supporting the referees. In a way, I totally agree with that but there has to be fair comment also. I think I try to do that."

Ferguson's punishment came days after Wayne Rooney had escaped censure for an off-the-ball incident with Wigan's James McCarthy. It was the latest chapter of an up-and-down season for the England striker but his manager believes that he is coming into form at just the right time.

"He's doing great," Ferguson said of Rooney. "He has that great desire and determination to do well. He has the energy to play at the very highest level, he has world-class moments and you see the maturity coming along. Normally this is our time in March and April and Wayne has shown that at the moment."

A sign of United's strength in depth in the striker position has been the recent demotion of Dimitar Berbatov, the Premier League's leading scorer, to the bench. The Bulgarian's late winner against Bolton on March 19 was his 20th league goal of the season but Berbatov has only started one of the last six games.

"When you see the potential of what we have then it's difficult to leave players out," Ferguson said. "It's not difficult to pick two players, that's easy. The difficulty is leaving one out and, in the case of Berbatov, he's been left out recently. We've had to leave Chicharito out of some games, we've had to leave Rooney out of some games and that's not easy."

His focus may be on the remaining two months of the current season but Ferguson is also preparing for the new campaign. With the pre-season tour confirmed - United will play MLS sides from New England, Seattle and Chicago, as well as the league's all-stars and Spanish champions Barcelona - he has allowed his attention to turn to the make-up of his squad for 2011-12.

Regarding players he has targeted, Ferguson revealed to a press conference at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey that "two or three will be fulfilled". However, as he told ESPN earlier in the day, such is the current state of the transfer market, that potential and promise will remain at the top of his list of priorities.

"I think it is difficult to see the value anywhere now because of the sudden thrust of demand for the best players and the revenue created by the Premier League means that there are always going to be big transfers now. There are very, very few small ones. I think I probably got the last good business in (Javier Hernandez).

"We do well at identifying young players and giving them an opportunity. If you look at the three signature signings of young players we have made in the last few years - Rooney, Ronaldo and Chicharito - it portrays that, exactly how we feel about young people and young players and going for potential. And yes, of course, we need some experienced players at some times but we're good at getting young players into our club."

For now, though, in addition to their cup campaigns, United are focused on edging closer to a 19th league title, which would see them usurp Liverpool as the most successful club in English top-flight history.

Some have speculated that such an accomplishment would be seen a suitable moment to retire by Ferguson, who will celebrate his 70th birthday on 31 December. The man himself, however, has other ideas and insists he will be around for a while yet.

"No, no, I'm fit. I think that retirement is for young people. They can do something. If you've got your fitness, you've not a problem. If you have got your health, you don't have a problem. The thing that would decide it for me is if those things deteriorated."

Andrew Hush is an associate producer on ESPNSoccernet Press Pass, full episodes of which can be seen here. Follow the show at



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