Sir Alex Ferguson says Everton will pose a significant threat to Manchester United’s title aspirations this weekend, with the in-form Toffees at Old Trafford on Saturday. But with just five Premier League games to go, victory against David Moyes’ men will leave United requiring just seven points to secure a 19th domestic league title. It’s a position from which the title is now United’s to lose despite the disappointing draw at Newcastle United on Tuesday night.
Indeed, Ferguson is delighted with the commanding lead built up in this year’s title race, despite his side’s indifferent form away from Old Trafford. However, with the Reds having won all but one game at home this season, Ferguson says the principal risk to achieving the club’s dreams this season lies in complacency. Something the 69-year-old Scot is keen to guard against for the Saturday lunchtime kick off.
“It is good to know someone is behind you,” Ferguson said.
“You have to recognise who is there because we cannot become complacent. In that sense we use our experience of years past in situations like this. Hopefully it will get us where we want to go.
“If we win, we will only have four games left and we will have a six-point lead. That is the way I am looking at it. I am not looking beyond that. It is never going to be easy against Everton. It is a local derby of sorts. But our home record is fantastic and so is our performance level.”
Ferguson can boast an almost fully fit squad for Everton’s visit, although the United manager has concerns over Dimitar Berbatov’s fitness, while Darren Fletcher will not return for another fortnight. However, with Brazilian youngster Rafael da Silva returning to the squad, Ferguson has a plethora of defensive options available for the first time in months. Although fit, Rio Ferdinand has a minor calf strain and may not be risked ahead of the Champions League semi-final.
“Darren is back training now,” Ferguson added.
“He has done a good week and might be available in 10 days’ time. Rafael is back in the squad tomorrow and we will see what Dimitar Berbatov is like because he has a slight groin strain.”
Paul Scholes is suspended for the first of three matches after the red card picked up in last weekend’s defeat to Manchester City. In what is likely to be the final month of Scholes’ United career, the flamed-haired midfielder will also miss games against Arsenal and Chelsea, before returning for the final two Premier League matches of the season.
With Berbatov struggling to be ready – the Bulgarian has a minor groin strain – Ferguson is again likely to pair Javier Hernández and Wayne Rooney is attack, despite the strikers drawing a blank at Newcastle this week.
Ferguson must also lift his troops after the FA Cup semi-final defeat to City and the goalless draw with Newcastle on Tyneside. While Arsenal’s failure to beat either Liverpool or Tottenham Hotspur over the past week has significantly strengthened United’s hand, Ferguson is aware that matches with both the Gunners and Chelsea loom large.
Indeed, with Chelsea also six points behind United and the west Londoners’ visit to Old Trafford coming in early May, the Reds cannot afford to drop any further points at home. Whatever the results between now and the end of the season, should United win the title Ferguson’s outfit will boast the worst away record of any champions since Liverpool in 1977.
Ferguson is also well aware of the challenge posed by Everton, whose form has picked up in recent weeks. Although Moyes has rarely been afforded money to spend in the transfer market, the cash-strapped Toffees have repeatedly over-performed under the Scot’s tutelage.
“It’s amazing what David has done,” added Ferguson.
“He has had to cope with a mountain of injuries over the last few weeks but Everton have still churned out the results. Even last season when he was without Phil Jagielka he still got them motivated. What he did well two or three years ago was to use the money he had available to get all his younger players on long-term contracts.
“That created a consistency in his squad which is proving very beneficial now. He brings people in to freshen his team up and they are able to do a job.”
Moyes is likely to be without three key players for the visit to Old Trafford, where the Toffees have not won in 17 matches. John Heitinga, who was forced off against Blackburn Rovers because of a hamstring problem last week, faces a late fitness test. Meanwhile, Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta are unlikely to make Saturday’s match.
And Moyes has warned United that his side has nothing to lose, with the Liverpudlians unlikely to qualify for Europe next season but safe from any fear of relegation.
“We know that we’re going to have to go and give it a go,” said Moyes.
“But we’re the ones who don’t have much to lose. We’re in a position where we’ve got an early kick-off tomorrow and we’ll try and go there and do something about it.
“I think Man United have gradually got better as the season has gone on, which they tend to do anyway. When they weren’t playing well they ground out results, kept going, picked up the points.
“It’s a great place to play your football but coming with it is a bit of fear because you’re going to play the top side in the country. But we’re going there in decent form and we can go there and given them a good game.”
That is almost certain, but with the title now firmly in focus, it is United’s greater desire that could decide the fixture in the Reds favour. United supporters worldwide will trust it is the case.
Everton – 451 – Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Osman, Rodwell, Neville, Coleman, Bilyaletdinov; Beckford. Subs from: Vellios, Gueye, Mucha, Shkodran Mustafi, Forshaw, Anichebe, Nsiala, McAleny, Saha.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Smalling, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Anderson, Nani; Rooney, Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Gibson, Berbatov, Park, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Giggs.
Referee: Peter Walton
Assistant referees: Mike Cairns & Ron Ganfield
Fourth official: Kevin Friend
United – WWWWLD
Everton – WDWDWW