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Ferguson takes first round of long campaign

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Phil McNulty | 08:23 GMT, Monday, 12 January 2009

If Sir Alex Ferguson had mapped out his weekend on a sheet of A4 paper - in vogue after Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez used one as a prop to aid an attack on his Manchester United counterpart - it would have turned out exactly as his script decreed.

In Ferguson's ideal world Liverpool would have lost at Stoke City rather than earning a point, but other than that it was just about perfect from both a psychological and footballing perspective.

The 67-year-old Scot almost skipped down the Old Trafford touchline at the conclusion of a comprehensive 3-0 dismissal of Chelsea, perhaps mentally ticking off a list of jobs well done to set himself up for the crucial battles ahead.

United had shot a hole in Chelsea's title aspirations, exposing Luiz Felipe's Scolari's side as currently suffering from a chronic lack of imagination - and even more worryingly suddenly looking susceptible to the most routine cross ball.


Ferguson's side were now back in control of their own title destiny, five points behind Liverpool but with two crucial games in hand.

And Jose Mourinho had been in close attendance in the Old Trafford directors' box to watch United impress, leaving for Italy to digest a healthy portion of food for thought ahead of his Champions League meeting with his old adversary Sir Alex.

Last - but most definitely not least - he had given the lie to Benitez's reckless assertion, in among a host of other charges, that United were "a little bit scared" to see Liverpool at the top of the league.

The manner of United's victory would not have made comfortable viewing for Benitez, and it might have hurt even more that there was almost a tone of sympathy for the Spaniard in Sir Alex Ferguson's voice as he delivered his rebuttal of the accusations made against him.

"I think he was an angry man. He was disturbed for some reason or another," said Ferguson in the bowels of Old Trafford post-victory.

What could Sir Alex possibly mean? Was it Benitez's still unsigned Anfield contract? Who knows?

It was a measured, calm Ferguson. The sort of Ferguson who knows he has just won the first round of what could be a long campaign of psychological warfare.

Ferguson is never more stoked up than when Liverpool are in his sights. It also gets the juices flowing in United's occasionally dormant followers. Old Trafford is even adorned with a "European Capital Of Trophies" banner these days, a playful (!) dig at Liverpool's recent cultural status.

One thing is certain, however, Benitez will not go quietly. I sat just a few feet away from him at Stoke on Saturday, where he was as strong in his conviction about Ferguson as he had been a day earlier.

This was no hit-and-run attack by Benitez. He will be happy to stand toe-to-toe with Ferguson for the full 12 rounds.

And United must guard against being sucked into thinking Benitez is anything other than totally convinced Liverpool can reclaim the title, despite a clear shift in momentum this weekend.

Benitez has called Ferguson and United on in the most public manner and never shirks a fight.

Just ask his previous employers at Valencia and his paymasters at Anfield, but he may just be forced to regroup slightly after United's show of force against Chelsea.

My own view is that Benitez would have been wiser to keep counsel, no matter how strong his arguments against Ferguson were. The atmosphere around Old Trafford had an extra edge on Sunday because of his attack, and it worked in United's favour.

If Benitez wanted to provoke a reaction, it was not the one he desired. United's response, and the fevered reaction to it around the stadium, was predictable.

They did not have to be at their best to beat a Chelsea side who were desperately disappointing after Nemanja Vidic gave United the lead in first half stoppage time.

Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov completed the formalities as they took advantage of the sort of slack Chelsea defending that would have had the watching "Special One" weeping into his expensive sweater.

United still have room for improvement, a fact that will warm Ferguson's heart.

Dimitar Berbatov covered up a largely innocuous display with his late goal and United are still not flowing as freely as they can. This may, however, be regarded as an ominous sign if Chelsea are put away so comfortably without United unveiling their full range of weapons.

Scolari delivered a passionate defence of his players, plus an honest assessment of Chelsea's current unsatisfactory plight, with his usual charm in his post-match inquest.

But the Brazilian has troubles and he needs to find answers before the huge hope and expectation of Chelsea's pre-season is replaced by worries for their future direction.

Chelsea have no width if their full-backs are cancelled out. If this particular Plan A fails, Scolari does not appear to have an alternative up his sleeve, especially as Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba looked ill-at-ease and poorly matched in their 45 minutes alongside each other in attack.

It was the new deficiencies that may worry Scolari even more.

If Chelsea faltered in attack, they could at least rely on the iron discipline and resolve of their rearguard, built around the twin towers of John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho.

They were re-united yesterday, but were powerless to stop United scoring three goals from balls delivered from wide. A corner, a cross and a free-kick were defended abominably and Chelsea suffered.

Chelsea is not a club known for its patience - just ask Avram Grant.

And while it would be ludicrous to ask questions about Scolari's position so early in his reign, displays like this against a team they took to a penalty shoot-out in the Champions League not so long ago will not be well received by the Stamford Bridge power-brokers.

The weekend, however, was about Ferguson. He was the big winner as he delivered blows on his closest rivals at Liverpool and Chelsea, while also finding time to unsettle Inter Milan's charismatic leader.

It is the sort of scrap football's most battle-hardened street-fighter loves. And you could see he was already preparing for the next round of hostilities as he marched from the dug-out in triumph.


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