From The Independent on Sunday:
It was almost four years ago that Sir Alex Ferguson coined the phrase "squeaky bum time", but since then there has not been much of a peep in the Premiership. Arsène Wenger's Invincibles, with that unbeaten 38-game League campaign, were followed for two seasons by Jose Mourinho's Incredibles.
Ferguson has always regarded Christmas as the "start of the run-in". For five of Manchester United's eight titles gained under him they trailed going into the festive period before ending up in first place. History showed that it is not always best to lead from the front. But Chelsea have been rewriting history.
Since Arsenal were overhauled in 2003, with United seven points adrift on Boxing Day before embarking on a run of 15 wins and three draws, Ferguson's belief has been an idle boast. The attempts at a traditional charge have resulted only in coughs and splutters as his team hit the vapour trails of those ahead of them.
But that has changed. In the plethora of words uttered by Alan Curbishley on his return to West Ham last week, there was a telling comment on United. Curbishley, during his sabbatical from management, had visited his friend Ferguson at the club's training ground, Carrington, before the season started. "It was hard to put my finger on it," he recalled. "But I realised then from Fergie and the whole place that they were up for the fight."
whatever happens from now until then - and until the final-day fixtures in May - there is something to marvel at: Ferguson's appetite and ability to refashion his team as genuine contenders. And also a side who are capable of playing wonderful, free-flowing, fluid football that touches the heights far more consistently than Mourinho's awesome creation. Maybe it is also due to Ferguson's belligerent desire to prevent the younger man matching his feat of three successive Premiership titles.
Certain factors have gone United's way, such as the astonishing re-emergence of Paul Scholes and the sustained form of Ryan Giggs. Also, crucially, Chelsea have changed formation, gearing themselves towards winning the European Cup, with the assumption that they can expect to grind out the Premiership. They have clearly struggled to integrate the increasingly forlorn Andriy Shevchenko and, to an extent, Michael Ballack, and often appear a collection of great players dependent on individual brilliance, with Drogba and Michael Essien the greatest of all, right now, rather than a team.
But there have also been some bold decisions from Ferguson, testimony to his enduring resilience and know-how, that have worked, not least the shedding of Ruud van Nistelrooy and the faith placed in Louis Saha, who has changed the nature of United's attack, providing greater variety and fluency. Ferguson's signings last January of Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, on apparently inflated price tags of £7.2 million and £5m respectively, have been vindicated with some impressive performances once they adjusted to the Premiership.
Weaknesses do exist. The arrival of Henrik Larsson, a clever bit of business, should address one. Ferguson's continued pursuit of Owen Hargreaves shows the concern he has in central midfield, where Michael Carrick, despite his undoubted talent and some good displays, has not yet justified that amazing £18m fee. United have recalled seven players, including Giuseppe Rossi, although some, such as Jonny Evans, who is wanted by Sunderland, will go back out on loan.
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