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    • Alex Ferguson said Manchester United could well need to win all of their remaining matches to come out on top in what he described as 'the tightest title race ever'. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

      Sir Alex Ferguson has spoken of his belief that Arsenal, not Chelsea, might pose the greater challenge to Manchester United's aspirations of winning the "tightest title race ever" and being crowned champions for a record fourth successive time.

      Two more goals from Wayne Rooney, taking his total for the season to 32, and a late Dimitar Berbatov header took United two points clear at the top of the Premier League with a 3-0 win against Fulham and Ferguson has told his players they may need to win their final eight games.

      "We are back in the lead, but Chelsea have a game in hand," Ferguson said. "It's also going to be a hard-fought tussle with Arsenal coming strongly now and I have a suspicion that they might yet mount the biggest challenge.

      " To a certain extent, the title is in our hands because Chelsea have to come to Old Trafford and, naturally, that will be a massive match but, as I say, I am wary of Arsenal if they don't suffer too many more injuries to key players."

      Rooney has now scored 24 times in his past 22 games after a relatively quiet start to the season and Ferguson believes the England striker has become the irresistible choice to be named footballer of the year. "I think he's a certainty," the United manager said. "You can't ignore his form and I think he has a great chance of winning both the players' award and the football writers' prize. He's been absolutely brilliant and is developing his game all the time. He's spending a lot of time practising and that's paying off on the football field."

      Rooney, chasing Cristiano Ronaldo's target of 42 goals last season, is now two ahead of his former team-mate at the corresponding stage two years ago, and it will be of no surprise to anyone at Old Trafford that the former Real Madrid president Ramón Calderón spoke yesterday of there being an "obsession" at the Bernabéu to sign him.

      Calderón believes his successor, Florentino Pérez, wants to capitalise on the financial uncertainty at Old Trafford by persuading Rooney to follow Ronaldo to Spain "if it is possible to spend again another €100m or €80m".

      Berbatov described Rooney as "the best player in the world" after his two second-half goals and backed him to finish the season with more than 40 goals.

      Ferguson agreed: "I said a while ago it would be impossible for him to get to 42 but he's on 32 now, so there's a challenge there. He's capable of scoring goals in our final eight games and maybe five more Champions League games. He's got 13 more games possibly to come so I'm not putting it beyond him."

      The manager had a broader task for his team. "I have set us a target: win every game between now and the end of the season. Obviously it's a big ask, but that's what we must aim for if we are to achieve our objective of winning the championship again."We are in a good run of form in the Premier League, but our rivals are going well, too, and it's as well for everyone to understand that's what it could well take to come out top.

      I have built a squad that should enable us to compete on all fronts and I am not going to prioritise except to say that it is essential we strain every sinew to win the league. That's the expectation and there is no hiding from it. Consistency is the name of the game now, and if I am honest we have had more off days than I would like."

    • Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates United's victory

      Sir Alex Ferguson is confident Manchester United's defence will provide the platform for a record 19th league title this season.

      United emerged from a potentially decisive day of Premier League action with the leadership retained thanks to their 2-1 win over Liverpool, and a four-point gap over former favourites Chelsea following their failure to beat Blackburn at Ewood Park.

      Although Arsenal split the pair, just two points behind the Red Devils after playing the same number of games, the odds on an unprecedented fourth successive championship ending up at Old Trafford have started to tumble.

      And, with the defence that was so ravaged by injury earlier this season now pieced carefully back together, Ferguson is looking forward with optimism.

      "We have a very experienced back four and a very experienced goalkeeper. That gives us a real outstanding chance," said Ferguson.

      "There are seven difficult matches - but we have all got difficult matches, so what does it matter?

      "No-one is going away. We are all knocking on doors.

      "If you look at the run-ins for the teams, it could very well go to the wire."

      Manchester City and Tottenham look to be the most arduous tests on the run-in, once Chelsea's visit to Old Trafford on April 3 has been negotiated.

      Given their goal difference advantage on Arsenal, Ferguson is now aware a draw against Carlo Ancelotti's men, attached to six victories, will likely be enough to give United the prize.

      It is not beyond them either now heroes are emerging from unexpected sources.

      Wayne Rooney's 33rd goal of the season, not that long after Fernando Torres had given Liverpool a fifth-minute lead, merely confirmed what a key figure the England star is - even if Rafael Benitez claimed Antonio Valencia dived for the penalty. Rooney tapped home the rebound after his spot-kick had been saved by Pepe Reina.

      The winner though was created by Darren Fletcher's cross and converted by Park Ji-sung's diving header, confirming the South Korean is worth far more to United than a mere shirt-seller.

      "Park was fantastic," said Ferguson.

      "He is one of those players we can give roles to. He has such intelligence and discipline.

      "He is a very important player for us and he is such a brave little lad too. It was his courage that got him the goal."


      Rio Ferdinand is relishing the intensity of a three-pronged title battle - just as long as Manchester United emerge the victors.

      A combination of their own victory over Liverpool on Sunday and Chelsea's failure to beat Blackburn at Ewood Park put United in pole position for the first time this season.

      Sir Alex Ferguson's men know even if Chelsea win their game in hand against cash-strapped Portsmouth at Fratton Park on Wednesday, they will still be a point better off than the Londoners, who must visit Old Trafford on April 3.

      Arsenal are currently two points adrift, but with a significantly inferior goal difference to the leaders, adding a further dimension to a contest that has seemed certain to favour the men from Stamford Bridge until their dramatic recent slump in form.

      A few twists seem certain yet to enthral committed supporter and neutral alike.

      Ferdinand can see exactly why it would be so alluring. But with an unprecedented fourth successive championship and a record 19th overall to win, United have a focus they will not easily be distracted from.

      "This is probably the best title run-in for years," said the England defender.

      "There are three teams in it, which makes it fantastic for the fans and the neutrals to watch.

      "But we just want to finish on top. That is what we are aiming to do."

      Although Sir Alex Ferguson has continually stressed the need to make a fast start since the arrival of Jose Mourinho in 2004, the Scot has not lost the ability of getting his team to peak at the right times either.

      After spending the early months of the season looking sluggish and incapable of recovering from the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo, the return of European combat has coincided with a surge in United's performances.

      Quite apart from Wayne Rooney going on a scoring streak that has now brought him 17 goals in 12 games, taking his overall tally to 33, just nine short of the 42 Cristiano Ronaldo ended up with two seasons ago, others are stepping into the breach too.

      Left out on Sunday, Dimitar Berbatov's input has been crucial recently, Antonio Valencia and Nani are both far more consistently effective out wide than before.

      The boundless energy of Park Ji-sung and Darren Fletcher is making United ultra difficult to defeat, while the return to fitness of an entire first-choice defence, plus keeper Edwin van der Sar has increased solidity still further.

      "We worked hard as a team and did what the manager asked. It got us the result," was Ferdinand's assessment of an effective performance, that neutralised Fernando Torres once the Spain star had scored for the third game on the trot against them.

      "We have been defending very well of late so to concede a goal after five minutes in such a big game was disappointing," continued the 31-year-old.

      "But we got ourselves back together and took control of the game.

      "The way we came back, picked ourselves up and went at Liverpool speaks volumes for the talent we have in our squad."

      Park's growing status at Old Trafford received a further boost with his brave winner.

      He has already added another League Cup winners' medal to his collection this season and, despite suffering a succession of injuries during the last few seasons that Ferguson attributed to his lengthy flights back home for international duty, is one of those who will be collecting a fourth championship medal should United finish top.

      Park accepts carrying out the task will not be as easy as it sounds. The sums however, are pretty simple.

      "The maths are easy," he said.

      "We have seven games left. If we win every one, we win the title.

      "It is not going to be easy and it could go to the last game.

      "But we believe in ourselves. If we keep playing to our present level we can do it."

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    • The word fact has an indelible association with Rafa Benitez, but Sir Alex Ferguson has a firm grasp of some. For Manchester United, they are pertinent. When he arrived in 1986, the ledger stood at 16-7. Within four years, the advantage had been extended to 18-7. Now Manchester United and Liverpool are tied with 18 titles apiece.

      Liverpool find themselves powerless to halt United's march towards the historic 19th. Their opportunity to maintain their share of pre-eminence departed as Park Ji-sung headed Ferguson's team to a sixth successive win.

      With seven games to go, a fourth successive Premier League crown beckons. The club's 19th would be the culmination of a life's work for Ferguson. Besides the balance of power in English football, much has changed in his extraordinary reign. When he was appointed in 1986, the notion of a South Korean determining a fixture of significance near the East Lancs Road and the Manchester Ship Canal was far-fetched.

      But United's global appeal has mushroomed in the subsequent time and Park's presence can appear an indication of that. It is welcomed in Seoul, if not always in Stretford. He sells shirts but wearing one is another altogether. He can seem that contradiction in terms, defensive attacker, deployed in the final third to nullify opponents.

      Yet Ferguson prizes players who perform when it matters most; silverware is not secured by trickery alone and an ability to prosper under pressure is in Manchester United's DNA. And cometh the hour, cometh the man. One who invariably figures in the major matches produced a winner in the 60th minute. His three goals this season have come against Arsenal, AC Milan and now Liverpool; a reputation as a big-game player has been cemented.

      "We can give him roles to play because of his intelligence and discipline," said Ferguson, who used the South Korean ahead of the midfield and behind Wayne Rooney. "Today we found him another role, slightly different from the Milan game but nevertheless really important. He's such a great little lad that his courage got him the goal."

      If there is such a thing, it was scarcely a typical Park goal. Heading in Darren Fletcher's cross, however, can not be construed as a fluke. Two earlier headers were off target, but they were indications he was making well-timed runs into the Liverpool box. While men converged around Rooney, whose goal was the consequence of a penalty, his less feared sidekick had rather fewer minders.

      In the process, he extended United's tradition of unlikely scorers against Liverpool - Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, John O'Shea and Mikael Silvestre all got important goals in the last few years - and worsened their predicament. They languish in sixth; Benitez believes, but many outsiders do not.

      A 16th defeat of the season in all competitions is a damning statistic, though Liverpool's performance was far superior to those in the setbacks in Wigan and Lille. A strategic battle that threatened to be a stalemate was his sort of game; it was also Park's. It was not a fiesta of free-flowing football but United have an aptitude for industry.

      "For periods of the game we played very well, for others we had to dig and concentrate," said their manager. He and Benitez agree on few things - "he has an opinion about everything," said the Spaniard - but they opted for identical systems. The result rendered it a tactical triumph for Ferguson.

      Of the two men deployed in the hole, Steven Gerrard was initially more influential than Park. He released Dirk Kuyt in the fifth minute, the Dutchman crossed and Fernando Torres, whose psychological hold over the United defence remains, headed in unmarked.

      There was a swift but hotly-disputed response. Antonio Valencia headed for the penalty area at speed, a tugging Javier Mascherano attempting to halt his progress. Eventually, the Ecuadorian went to ground: but was the offence inside or outside the area? "I have a lot of doubts," said Benitez. "It is not clear. It is clear that there is contact but the way he fell down... strange." Penalty, argued Ferguson; spot-kick, ruled referee Howard Webb. Jose Reina, something of a specialist in such situations, saved from Rooney, but the striker converted the rebound.

      Not that it provided an end to the disagreements as a contretemps on the touchline showed. "It was a yellow card, yes," said Benitez after Mascherano was cautioned. "A definite red card, I must say," insisted Ferguson.

      He has been warring with Liverpool managers for almost a quarter of a century. But, right or wrong, a man who likes to have the last word in any argument almost has the ultimate retort: 19-18.

      MAN OF THE MATCH: Darren Fletcher. Ferguson noted that his most dependable midfielder had missed each of the last three meetings with Liverpool, all of them won by the Merseysiders. On his return, the Scot excelled, creating the winner in a typically determined display. "He covers every inch of the ground," said his manager. "He does an unbelievable job for us."

      MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Wins come in many forms and guises. Not for the first time, United proved they are well capable of grinding them out. Knowing how to win games is an invaluable skill, and it is one they possess. As he has done of late, Ferguson reiterated the importance of finally being able to reunite Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in the centre of defence. Ryan Giggs made a brief appearance from the bench, another returnee who should prove useful in the next couple of months.

      LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Benitez reverted to type in his selection, with men such as Kuyt and Lucas preferred to more adventurous alternatives like Ryan Babel and Alberto Aquilani. That said, Liverpool justified that choice by restricting United's chances for much of the match. The disappointment should be that, a late Torres mis-kick apart, they rarely threatened an equaliser. Well-drilled defensively, there were only two flaws: a seeming inability to track Park's runs and Emiliano Insua's travails against the pace of Valencia. Both goals originated on his flank.

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