Belfast Telegraph

Full-bodied challenge is meat and drink to Ferguson

By Andy Hunter

Fire and ice converge on the City of Manchester Stadium tomorrow when Sir Alex Ferguson and Sven Goran Eriksson duel on a football field instead of down a telephone line for only the second time in their distinguished club careers.

The years, the trophies and even the arguments may have forged a grudging respect between the managers of Manchester's United and City, as the latter suggested this week, but when a bottle of wine can reveal a lack of friendship between the pair the truth is exposed as very different.

"They have had a fantastic start and I'm sure Sven will be hoping his luck holds for a good part of the season," was Ferguson's assessment of the opening week that sees City enter the derby with a four-point lead over their rivals and a 100 per cent return from two games under the Swede. City, the United manager continued, would be as brutal in the tackle tomorrow as they were in the corresponding fixture last season under Stuart Pearce and would not be involved in a bigger fixture this term.

In fact Ferguson was as brutally dismissive of a City awash with Thaksin Shinawatra's money and Eriksson's guidance as he has been throughout his 20 years at Old Trafford, during which time 12 previous managers have tried and failed to become the dominant force in Manchester. It was his dismissal of the olive branch held forth by the former England manager with whom he endured countless disputes over international friendlies and Wayne Rooney's metatarsal, however, that revealed the depth of discord between the new city rivals.

When told, erroneously as it transpired, that Eriksson planned to settle their differences over a £400 bottle of vintage wine tomorrow afternoon, Ferguson laughed: "If he gives it to me as a present I'll accept it but I am not going to be sharing it with him. I'll take it home if it is that expensive." The City manager later revealed there would be no wine. "I haven't bought any wine," he countered. "Sir Alex will have to settle for whatever wine the club buys."

It was hardly the cross-fire of a civil war, yet the different take the pair have on their relationship was not difficult to detect. "I know Alex very well," insisted Eriksson, who claimed he had been out to dinner several times with the United manager during his five years with England.

"I don't know much about him. Carlos knows more about him from his days at Benfica," was Ferguson's take. "We faced him in that Super Cup in Monaco against Lazio in 1999. He has had good experience; he has been at Lazio, he has been at Benfica and Sampdoria – that is an incredible CV. Maybe club football did suit him better. International management is for much older people."

The United manager added: "I think every City manager who comes along is told it is a big season for them. Stuart Pearce was in the job for three months and they were talking about him for the England manager's job. Dearie me. I don't know how many managers have been there since I've come. They have had some good managers – Howard Kendall, Peter Reid, Joe Royle, Kevin Keegan and Mel Machin, who was a very good coach, but the expectation is big there."

Eriksson has promised a vibrant, more expansive playing style with the £40m he has lavished on his squad thus far and was adamant there would be no repeat of the thuggish tactics of last season, when Michael Ball escaped with an early stamp on Cristiano Ronaldo. "It is not our tactics to kick players, we don't have a team to concentrate on that," Eriksson said. "I haven't bought any players who are famous for kicking opponents. I hope I have only bought good football players."

Ferguson, naturally, remained unimpressed. He claimed: "I think they will play exactly the same as last season. City will have a point to prove. Their fans will be up for it. Last season they tried to gee them up by handing out thousands of blue-and-white scarves. They spent a fortune on it and never had a shot at goal. It was amazing; we were going there to win the League and they were quite happy.

"It is the biggest game of their season whereas we have more challenges ahead but we want to win because supporters have to go to work on Monday morning and it is important to have the bragging rights until we meet again."

While City could go into the contest with a full squad, albeit one unaccustomed to the rare pressures of a Manchester derby, United are without the injured Wayne Rooney, the recovering Owen Hargreaves, Anderson, Gary Neville and Louis Saha and the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo as they seek their first win of the season. Ronaldo's loss will be felt hardest by the visitors, admitted Ferguson, as he continued to court an FA charge by criticising referee Steve Bennett's performance at Portsmouth on Wednesday and even Sky television pundit Andy Gray for suggesting Reading striker Dave Kitson was harshly dismissed at Old Trafford last Sunday.

"My fear is that referees are more tolerant of physical contact. I've noted this in the last few months; bad tackles are going unpunished," the United manager insisted. "Referees keep talking about managing the situation but these things are black and white; tackles from behind should not be allowed.

"What is even worse is hearing Andy Gray saying the boy Kitson should not have been sent off. Andy Gray knows full well that in the 1970s he was bashing full-backs and centre-halves all over the bloody place but this is 2007 and if Patrice Evra's foot had been on the ground, this would have been a serious, serious challenge and one that could have ended his career. I know the boy Kitson is not that type of player but that is not to say you should not be punished for doing stupid things on the pitch.

"Players like Ronaldo are going to be the victims, and fans are going to be the victims because you are going to get someone with a serious injury. Ronaldo has had it before. It is very difficult to be angry with him because some of the things that are happening are not right. There is every chance he could be seriously injured.

"You are never going to change Ronaldo because he is always going to attack defenders. There is nobody better. The rest is down to referees and if we get weak referees like we did on Wednesday, you are going to suffer."


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