Manchester United have just enough in the tank to see off resurgent Liverpool
Even if United, leading by a point and clutching their game in hand like a comfort blanket, remain deserved favourites to retain a title they increasingly think of as part of the Old Trafford furniture, history provides hope for Liverpool in this season of a thousand dramas. Back in 1997-98, United seemed to be coasting inexorably to a fifth league triumph in six years. The fat lady was going through her scales, the trophy engravers were sharpening their chisels and certain bookies were digging into their satchels to reward United backers. Related Articles'Ferguson's legacy is secure'Neville planning for retirementFergie's United successorsOne more year for Ferguson?Ronaldo reacts to dive jibeManchester Uniteds quest for quintuple: What are the chances?On March 4, Arsenal lay 11 points adrift, albeit with two games in hand. What happened next still brings a smile to Arsene Wenger's face, a frown to Ferguson's and food for thought for Benitez. Many of the lessons that can be taken from the stunning turnaround in fortunes, climaxing with Wenger's side prevailing by a point, hail from the school of the bleeding obvious: be consistent (Arsenal went on a 10-game winning run), be bold (draws are title-killers), have leaders (Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira), be tight defensively (Arsenal did not concede a league goal in February, March or April) and avoid suspensions (listen up Wayne 'Crazy man' Rooney). So far, so straightforward. Where the '97-98 season bears particularly fruitful inspection for Liverpool is in the realisation of the importance of such traits as humour, essential for dispelling tension, a quality Wenger deployed back then and Liverpool characters like Jamie Carragher exude now. It also revealed a tale of the unexpected, a player coming out of left-field, or Liberia in the case of Christopher Wreh, who struck winners at Wimbledon and Bolton Wanderers. Glancing an eye down Benitez's squad list, few wild cards present themselves; worryingly for Liverpool '09, and this is perhaps the main lesson handed down by history, Arsenal '98 had a superior strength in depth. When injury incapacitated David Seaman, Alex Manninger stepped in for six games and did not let in a goal. If Pepe Reina pulled a hamstring, Liverpool's backdoor would be guarded by the untested Diego Cavalieri. Along the East Lancs Road, a 'keeper of Ben Foster's class understudies Edwin van der Sar. If the starting XIs are well-matched, United's bench is better. More encouragingly for Liverpool, Arsenal '98 were given a cutting edge by two attacking talents hitting the best form of their careers. For Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars delivering 28 league goals in Arsenal red, Liverpool enjoy the similar speed of thought, telepathy and unerring finishing of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. But if either thoroughbred falls lame, the race is over. Ferguson still rues the cruciate injury that deprived him of Roy Keane's dynamism in '97-98. As now, March '98 proved the darkest of months for United, Ferguson's side losing to Sheffield Wednesday and drawing with West Ham before playing host to a reviving Arsenal on March 14. Wenger was calm personified. "I hear the bookmakers are taking bets again!'' he remarked before heading north. Wryly does it. In victory, secured when Overmars slid Nicolas Anelka's flicked ball beneath Peter Schmeichel, Wenger ensured no sound of triumphalism seeped from under the door of the away dressing-room. Smart move. Rule One of Premier League campaigns: never toss Ferguson an extra bundle of fuel for his team's fire. Listen to Liverpool players currently and their mantra is respect for United, but no fear. Never write Ferguson's team-talks for him. A skilled, seasoned heavyweight at coming out fighting when on the ropes, Ferguson is invariably most voluble in adversity, drawing attention away from his players, throwing down the card marked defiance. Ferguson knows that individual mistakes can rip up any script, a refereeing howler here, a defensive slip there. He also appreciates that United must take maximum points from April tests against Aston Villa, Sunderland, Portsmouth and Tottenham Hotspur because May shimmers with danger, notably City and Arsenal at home and Wigan Athletic away. Liverpool's run-in is far the easier with only trips to Fulham and West Ham and home dates with Arsenal and Spurs likely to entice beads of sweat from Anfield brows. (Chelsea cannot be discounted but their lingering title dream may end at Upton Park or the Emirates). With April so critical, Ferguson will doubtless put on a bravura performance in this Friday's media briefing at Carrington. He will ratchet up the pressure on Liverpool. Can they handle the heat? A similar line of attack marked his response to Arsenal's success at Old Trafford in '98. "We'll see how they stand up to the pressure now,'' barked Ferguson. Rather well, as it happened, Arsenal accelerating to the title, exploiting United draws to Newcastle and Liverpool. When Ferguson's comment was relayed to Arsenal players, most just smiled. Sticks and stones could break their bones but words would never hurt warriors like Adams and Vieira. Gerrard, Carragher and Javier Mascherano are too tough to be distracted. It will be edgy, compelling, probably fractious but if United hold their nerve in April they should edge the race.
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