Manchester United have new focus after Chelsea defeat
Published 09/11/2009 | 15:13
Referee Martin Atkinson may unwittingly have provided Manchester United with the impetus they need to land an unprecedented fourth straight Premier League title.
Although the Red Devils left Stamford Bridge cursing Atkinson last night after the controversial John Terry goal that sent Chelsea five points clear, Sir Alex Ferguson knows there is plenty of time left to haul the Londoners back.
But instead of nudging along on the back of a succession of below-par displays compared to their own exacting standards, United have a renewed focus.
Ferguson is never happier than when he can paint an image of his squad having their backs pressed against a wall, pushed there by some perceived injustice.
In deciding Darren Fletcher's perfectly fair tackle on Ashley Cole was a foul, then failing to spot Didier Drogba hauling Wes Brown over as Terry's header flew past, Atkinson has done just that.
"It is very hard to take," grumbled Ferguson.
"But in the context of Manchester United, with the squad we have got, the gap is not unassailable - that is for sure.
"What that match has done is provide a reminder that we are a very good team.
"We have been criticised recently by a lot of people. But we have a cause now. We want to win this league."
It was at a similar point last season that United bounced back from defeat at Arsenal to embark on the run of 14 successive clean sheets that led to them finishing top of the Premier League.
Critics will argue the big differences between then and now are the absences of Carlos Tevez and, in particular, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ferguson is aware of the problem - and with Nani failing to find the level of consistency required to do damage at the highest level and Ryan Giggs too old to do the job twice a week for another six months, it would be no shock if the Scot delved into the January transfer market.
Certainly elsewhere, United seem in decent health.
The odd lapse apart, Edwin van der Sar is still producing high-class performances - and Ben Foster, despite mishaps against Manchester City and Sunderland, is now an England regular under Fabio Capello.
There are options in central midfield, where Fletcher's progress into one of the most effective 'destroyers' continued yesterday when he outshone Michael Essien in their own personal duel.
United appear in rude health in central defence, given the combination of Brown and Jonny Evans proved so effective in subduing Drogba.
With Rio Ferdinand's absence unlikely to end soon, Ferguson will be relying on the pair even more as the season goes on.
Evans' ability has been known for some time, while his manager has always felt Brown would be regarded as one of the best centre-halves in England were it not for his chronic list of injuries.
Even after cruciate surgery in both knees, a broken ankle and various muscular problems, Brown has already been to one World Cup and may well make a second after being selected in Fabio Capello's England squad for Saturday's friendly with Brazil in Qatar.
At the moment, though, an England commitment is a bit of an irritation -given his desire to put yesterday's result right, certain in the knowledge that he had been fouled as Terry scored.
"It is very hard to take," he said, echoing his manager's sentiments.
"Drogba was holding me and he pulled me down. He has obstructed me from trying to jump for the ball. But the referee did not see it. What can you do?
"I didn't think it was a free-kick in the first place either. Darren has not gone in viciously.
"It looks like he has just turned, and Ashley Cole has jumped in the air.
"We definitely did not deserve that result. We were the better team. We passed the ball well and had more chances.
"It is disappointing to be five points behind them now. We just have to try and put this result behind us, carry on playing like that - but just score goals."