United hunting for Red October
West Bromwich Albion will be the first to discover if Sir Alex Ferguson's early season boot up the backside has had the desired effect. Publicly bemoaning his side's lack of ruthlessness was an unusual step for the Manchester United manager but one he thought absolutely necessary given Chelsea's march over the horizon before the clocks have even gone back. A five-point lead in October is far from insurmountable. But given United's sloppy start to the season their worst for six years Ferguson is justified in fearing Carlo Ancelotti's champions could be out of sight by Christmas at this rate. He has identified the next month as a crucial stage in the campaign to assert their title challenge as well as wrap up qualification from the Champions League group stage. On paper, at least, United have a generous October once all their players return from international duty, taking them right up to the Manchester derby against City on November 10. By then, Ferguson expects to have closed the gap on Chelsea, while the clash with Roberto Mancini's side already looks like it could prove pivotal in the title race. If you look at Chelsea's start to the season, you'd have expected them to have won all those games, so the position they're in doesn't surprise me, he said. We've had tricky trips to Fulham and Everton then played Liverpool at home. Those are difficult matches. Chelsea had a dream start to the season playing two of the newly promoted sides in West Brom and Blackpool in their first five games. But given that they have now faced City and Arsenal in their last two, Ferguson's argument begins to lose weight. However, with games against Wigan, Stoke and West Ham as well, the Stamford Bridge side were certainly given a gentle start to their defence of the title. The worry for Ferguson is that he knows United should have made more out of winning positions against Fulham and Everton, while four points dropped at Bolton and Sunderland is far from championship form. Opportunity Which is why he sees the next month, with three home games against West Brom, Tottenham and Wolves as well as a trip to Stoke, as a perfect opportunity to click into gear. Harry Redknapp's Spurs looks like the toughest in that group of fixtures but the Londoners have not won at Old Trafford in their last 23 visits. Their last victory came in the old First Division in 1989. United have won on each of the last six occasions the sides have met at their home ground. Ferguson is also looking to secure safe passage through to the Champions League second phase over the next month, which will again allow him to concentrate on domestic matters. A total of 10 points is usually seen as enough to qualify from the group stages and with United having already picked up four against Rangers and Valencia, they now face a double-header with Turkish side, Bursaspor, at home on October 30 and away November 2. A maximum of six points could give Ferguson opportunity to rotate his squad in the final games against Rangers and Valencia. Ferguson's latest comments have already been interpreted as mind games in some quarters and they will have been made with every intention to get a reaction from his own players as well Chelsea's. And while he will know that the Premier League table could look a lot more pleasing on the eye at this stage of the season, United are still in touch at the top. But a return of 13 points from their opening seven games is their worst start since the 2004/5 campaign when they ended up finishing third behind Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and Arsenal. By this stage last season they had 18 points despite a shock defeat to Burnley and still ended up a point behind Chelsea in the title race. Realistically Ferguson will know United can't afford to drop any points in the lead up to a hotly anticipated derby, where both sides would probably settle for a draw. The mind games have begun early this season, which is evidence enough of Ferguson's concern at how the campaign is panning out. The question will be whether he has played his hand too early or if will prove yet another psychological masterstroke? Will United begin to click into gear after the international break? Have your say.
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