Sir Alex Ferguson fears "one bad week" will cost Manchester United their chance of glory this season. United head towards their final game with Stoke tomorrow still nursing a chance of becoming the first team to win four league titles on the trot. But the odds are overwhelmingly against them. Even a victory against Tony Pulis' men will not be enough unless Wigan become only the third side this season to take points off Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
The "hope" Ferguson expresses is without conviction, and there seems little doubt United will have cause to lament the disastrous eight-day period in which a home defeat to Chelsea followed the shattering disappointment of a Champions League exit to Bayern Munich. "A bad week might have cost us everything," said the United manager yesterday. "The biggest disappointment was the European Cup. It's an absolute travesty because we were the best team. We had a good opportunity to win it but we took the disappointment into the first half against Chelsea."
In fact, it looks like the following weekend's failure to beat Blackburn at Ewood Park, when the European hangover was at its fiercest signalled the death knell to United's championship hopes. Having responded to news of Chelsea's victory at Liverpool last weekend with admirable resilience, which proved enough to defeat Sunderland, Ferguson is demanding similar fortitude this weekend, knowing at some stage, the odds are he will be hearing some very bad news.
"There are TV people standing in front of you, people beside you and the crowd reaction sometimes tells you," said Ferguson as he reflected on the pointless task of trying to ignore events at Stamford Bridge. In truth, Ferguson does not hold out much hope, even if Roberto Martinez, the Wigan manager, feels the situation will bring out the best in his players. "It's pointless going into the game expecting anything from Chelsea in our favour," said Ferguson."I have confidence that Wigan will do their best and they will try. There's pressure on both us and Chelsea because we both need to win but I don't know what's going on in Chelsea's minds - all I know is that in this situation we just hope."
Ferguson has already started planning for next season with the arrivals of Javier Hernandez and Fulham defender Chris Smalling, while a new four-year contract for Jonny Evans indicates further foundations being laid for the future. Having indicated in midweek it might be time to freshen his squad, he refused to offer any clues about whose time at Old Trafford may be coming to an end. Ferguson is clearly expecting an even more ferocious battle for the championship next season though, with Champions League new-boys Tottenham likely to strengthen and Manchester City coming back even stronger after missing out on a top-four berth this term.
"The Premier League will be more competitive next season," said Ferguson. "This is the best Tottenham team I have experienced in terms of substance and City will be strong again next season." * PA Sport