Sir Alex Ferguson’s side heads into the weekend fixture with Tottenham Hotspur still chasing Manchester City at the head of the Premier League But, with Sunday’s game one of two remaining that may swing the title either side of Manchester, the 70-year-old manager is placing faith in his squad’s experience and hunger with 12 games to go.
Spurs, coming off the back of a 5-2 hiding by local rivals Arsenal, will be keen to restore momentum in the club’s challenge for Champions League qualification this season. It makes both for the most important United-Spurs clash of recent seasons and, potentially, a key moment in this campaign’s title race.
Indeed, with City to face both Arsenal and Chelsea before the season closes in May, a United victory at White Hart Lane this coming weekend should set up the title race for a decisive clash between the Manchester clubs at Eastlands in late April.
“It’s going to be a massive game,” Ferguson told Inside United of the Sunday afternoon clash with Harry Redknapp’s outfit.
“If we can survive that one, then we’ll have a big, big chance of winning the league. Yes, I would take [being two points behind City]. I would rather go there on level points. But if we could go there within striking distance of being top of the league, I’d take it.”
Ferguson can have greater confidence in the Reds’ title challenge now that an injury crisis, which at times has stretched to 11 personnel this season, has waned. United should travel to north London with Wayne Rooney, who is still recovering from a throat infection, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all fit. Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia may feature at White Hart Lane, while Tom Cleverley’s ankle injury is far less serious that first feared.
“I should have more players available than I’ve had in the last few weeks because we’ve had a terrible spell of injuries,” added Ferguson.
“But we’ve done the right thing in the treatment of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, we’ve given them a break. They are young players and they had been carrying little strains for weeks. Then all of a sudden it hits them, and we had to take stock, to get them back. We’ve given them a fair break and they’re fresh now.”
While youngsters Smalling and Jones hunt for the second and first titles of fledgling careers, Ferguson is also mindful of the vast experience available in his squad. Weekend goalscorers Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are sure to play key roles during the run in, while striker Rooney is coming to the close of an eighth campaign as a United player. No longer the new kid, Rooney is a both a senior pro at the club and key to United’s success – or failure – in the coming months.
“Wayne Rooney’s been with us for nearly eight years now and he’s won a few championship medals,” Sir Alex adds.
“He knows what it takes to win it. When he and Cristiano Ronaldo first came to the club, it was all new to them – the demands of winning the league here. I think the aim for all the players is to try and get to four or five league medals, and then they’ll have great experience of how to handle the title race.”
At the other end of that scale Ferguson is likely to place an emphasis on United-trained youngsters including Cleverley and Danny Welbeck during the run-in. While Cleverley has missed much of the campaign with injury, Welbeck has proven a key weapon in United’s title defence. The England international has not only forced his way into Ferguson’s team, but ahead of Javier Hernández in the pecking order.
“I’m so hungry,” striker Welbeck told ManUtd.com.
“I was just talking about it before in the canteen with Tom Cleverley. Clevz was biting his fork as well as his food and growling. We both want it so much. I don’t think anybody understands how hungry we are for this title. We want to fulfil our dreams, win the title and keep winning and keep winning. There’s nothing going to stop us.”
How typical of Ferguson to successfully integrate experience and youth into a winning combination. Indeed, in a campaign where United has been struck low by injury and, at times, lack of quality together with infuriating complacency, there is little surprise Ferguson is happy with his side’s current position. City should be out of sight by now given the club’s resources and United’s comparative limitations.
Yet, before any trophies are lifted, corks popped or backs slapped, the Reds must negotiate Spurs at White Hart Lane on Sunday afternoon. It is a fixture from which United normally emerges triumphant. In the previous 10 visits to the lane Ferguson’s side has won seven times. Spurs have not beaten United in London since a 3-1 victory in 2001.
Moreover, with Redknapp’s focus on the England job his players’ have lost a little momentum in recent weeks. Spurs’ two wins in the past five fixtures is not the record of potential champions. Whether the Londoners can respond to thumping defeat last weekend is unknown. Without the side’s leader Scott Parker the task against United will surely be that much more difficult.
By contrast, there is no doubt Ferguson’s players have the bit between the teeth.