Premier League – United in good heart

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson believes his players are in the ideal frame of mind to meet Premier League title rivals Arsenal this afternoon.

FOOTBALL Sir Alex Ferguson - 0

Leaders United will knock Arsenal out of the title race if they win at Old Trafford and leave the Gunners facing a season without silverware following their European exit at Liverpool on Tuesday.

Twenty four hours later United completed a 3-0 aggregate win over AS Roma to set up a clash with Barcelona and Ferguson’s side will remain on course for a double if they can beat Arsenal and maintain their three-point advantage over Chelsea.

“I always viewed the Middlesbrough match as our most difficult game and I wasn’t surprised with the performance of Middlesbrough,” Ferguson said. “They could have beaten us but we rescued a point out of it.

“The games against Arsenal and Chelsea are the two big ones. They are fantastic occasions which all the players look forward to. It’s best if you go into the games in decent form and I think our form is decent.

“It will be a great game on Sunday. As we know Arsenal have been our main competitor for 13 years or whatever and it’s not going to change on Sunday.

“It will be a hard-fought match and hopefully we will take the spoils.”

United have been further boosted by the return to action of experienced defenders Gary Neville and Mikael Silvestre following long-term injuries.

Neville appeared as a late substitute against Roma after almost 13 months out with an ankle injury and other related problems and his every touch was cheered by the Old Trafford crowd.

“What he learned is how much he’s appreciated by the fans. It was a great reception he got,” said Ferguson.

“It’s good to have the boy back. He’s been through a hard time of it with persistent small injuries that were always de-railing him.”

United illustrated their strength in depth in the win over Roma as Ferguson could afford to rest Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney.

Defender Nemanja Vidic will still be missing against Arsenal but should be fit to face Barcelona, while Silvestre’s successful comeback following seven months out with a knee injury further increased Ferguson’s options.

“To have him back just gives us a little bit of extra experience at a very important time of the year for us, so it was a big bonus,” the United manager added.

Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger admits Arsenal are paying the price for continuing to rely on youth as they look set to end the season empty handed again.

Wenger’s young Gunners defied all expectations by starting the season at a blistering pace and establishing a five-point lead at the Premier League summit.

But inconsistency and bad luck have undermined their campaign since February.

A third consecutive season without silverware beckons but Wenger refuses to abandon his preference for nurturing emerging talent over signing expensive superstars.

The Frenchman accepts his players have proved fallible at key moments this season but is adamant they have the class to succeed.

“When you go for a youth policy you know about the price you must pay,” he said.

“We knew that we had to enter March with a big advantage but now we have no special pressure on us and we can use that to our favour.

“Big moments in big games have gone against us. We have to think about that at the end of the season and try to rectify it.

“Last month we were 1-0 up against Chelsea with 17 minutes to go but lost the game 2-1. We had the game in our hands, we just had to grab it.

“At decisive moments in games we have shown a lack of maturity and that’s what’s gone wrong for us recently. It’s only maturity, not quality.”

Wenger has been criticised for a cautious approach to recruitment that has left the squad short of numbers and experience at the decisive stage of the season.

Funds are available but the Gunners boss is convinced the club can compete without spending big.

“We have gone for a policy and have to stick with it,” he said.

“It’s very difficult to change the policy when you’re in the middle of it and of course you destroy the work you’ve completed in the previous years.

“We are very close to our rivals and we have to keep this team together.

“We fight with Chelsea who lose over £100million per year and we make £50million per year.

“We still have to beat them and if we don’t beat them then it’s viewed as a disaster. I have to take a better perspective on it.

“We play against Manchester United tomorrow and how much money have they spent on players? But I still believe we can beat them.”

Wenger will be hoping for a more palatable outcome than on Arsenal’s last trip to Old Trafford, when they were spanked 4-0 in the FA Cup.

That result, conceded by a disinterested side more focused on their Champions League clash with AC Milan four days later, has been identified as a pivotal moment of the season.

But Wenger is adamant it has no bearing on today’s heavyweight showdown and is confident Arsenal can still reclaim the Premiership title they last won in 2004.

“We didn’t go for the FA Cup this year, frankly. That match will have now influence on our behaviour,” he said.

“If you look at the expectations everyone had for us, if we were not to win anything now it would not be a huge disappointment.

“Nobody expected us to be in the top four so why is it suddenly a huge disappointment that we might not win anything?

“But first let’s play tomorrow because my expectations are still very high.”

TeamTalk / Reuters