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Ferguson will relish Chelsea battle

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Phil McNulty | 07:54 GMT, Friday, 19 September 2008

Sir Alex Ferguson welcomed Luiz Felipe Scolari to the Premier League in trademark fashion - namely with a psychological dig below the belt in the shape of a jibe about Chelsea's ageing squad.

It was the first shot in a phoney war rather than a serious assessment of a Chelsea side that pushed United to the last day in the title race and came within a penalty kick of beating them in the Champions League final in May.

But it will be intriguing to see Ferguson's theory put to the test at Stamford Bridge on Sunday as a United team who have made a poor start to the season face Chelsea, who are on a mission to make a nonsense of his comments.

Chelsea and Manchester United are touted by most experts as the two teams who will seriously contest the title this season, and the former have made the sort of flying start their rivals have found difficult to over-turn in the past.

Ferguson's last week will not rank among his finest, with a richly-deserved defeat at Liverpool followed by a colourless Champions League display against Villarreal only lifted by a lively cameo from the returning Cristiano Ronaldo.

Even the fates appeared to conspire against the old street-fighter, with John Terry's red card against Manchester City rescinded, thus allowing him to face United on Sunday while they will be without suspended Nemanja Vidic.

Ferguson, however, will use that perceived injustice to prod his side into what he will see as a statement of intent against his latest high-profile rival.

The battle of wits between Scolari and Ferguson will be studied intently on Sunday for vital signs of how the battle between the super-powers (and master managers) will pan out this season.

Sir Alex Ferguson

Scolari has made an almost faultless start to life in England, with Chelsea showing that grinding winning mentality of old bolted on to a new freedom of expression under the Brazilian coach.

Chelsea may have stuttered to victory at Wigan, but the way they outclassed an improving Manchester City after going behind at Eastlands last Saturday was ominously impressive.

Scolari has been engaging, humourous - but also gave a clear message about what he expects with an unexpectedly critical reaction to Chelsea's excellent (or at least I thought it was) thrashing of Bordeaux in the Champions League.

Don't be fooled by the tic-tac arm-waving and those gurning Gene Hackman facial expressions. This is a serious man here on serious business.

But he is combustible and Ferguson will hope to use his team to get under his skin and disturb the equilibrium and relative calm we have seen from Scolari this season.

Scolari has not transformed Chelsea into a flamboyant outfit in a few weeks, but there is more attacking intent about them and the introduction of Deco gives them added flair.

There is certainly less of the "what we have we hold" mentality that was such a stunning success under Jose Mourinho - Scolari likes going for the kill.

Whereas most managers would regard a visit to the league leaders with trepidation after the start United have had, Ferguson will be exactly the opposite.

He will see it as the perfect stage to restore what he regards as the natural order, namely with United taking second place to no-one. This is the sort of challenge that shapes his managerial personality.

If he stood in front of cameras and microphones and lambasted United's "Conference" defending after they lost at Liverpool, we can only imagine what was said in the confines of the dressing room.

And he is likely to make it swiftly known that the sort of idle display Dimitar Berbatov delivered after his early impact at Anfield will not be tolerated.

Ronaldo's performance against Villarreal, albeit a short cameo, did instantly add an extra dimension to United's play and he will surely start at Chelsea. This alone makes it a different United to the one that was so limp at Liverpool.

Ferguson will not accept another effort like the one he got at Anfield last Saturday, when Liverpool delivered the ultimate insult to his senses by showing more stomach for the battle than his side.

He will also want to ensure Chelsea do not open up a nine-point gap over United which, while not insurmountable, would be very problematical against a side that does not exactly do losing.

Scolari, for his part, will be a coach wanting make an early point in charge of a team still nursing wounds from last season - United fans have already immortalised John Terry's pivotal penalty miss in the Champions League final in less than flattering song.

As the Ryder Cup captains have been saying, it is about the players in action not the leaders on the margins - but the body language of Ferguson and Scolari will provide an intriguing backdrop to the action on the pitch at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

Scolari's Chelsea are in form and firing while United are scratching around for their best form and looking a little off the pace - but in his own cussed way, that might just be the way Ferguson likes it as he looks for a catalyst to spark off United's season.

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