Sir Alex Ferguson believes Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea this summer would be the biggest challenge to Manchester United’s bid for another Premier League title next season.
The Special One has fallen out with the hierarchy at Real Madrid and has been widely tipped for a sensational return to Stamford Bridge as a replacement for under-fire interim boss Rafa Benitez.
Ferguson believes Mourinho, who won two league titles during his first stint with Chelsea, would turn the west London club into genuine rivals for the top-flight title once again.
Speaking ahead of tomorrow night’s mouthwatering Manchester derby at Old Trafford, a bullish Ferguson said: ‘Whether we can go on another run of three titles in a row, who’s to say? The material’s there, but it’s a hard league. If Jose (Mourinho) goes back to Chelsea, as they’re talking about, you’d expect a big challenge from there.’
United’s 70th victory over neighbours City would lift them 18 points clear, removing any doubts about emphatically seizing back the title which was snatched from them in last season’s dramatic finale.
But for the 71-year-old Scot, his 13th Premier League triumph will be far from the end of his magnificent reign at the club.
Already the most successful manager in British football history, he is hungry for more. Barring unforeseen health problems, his voracious appetite for further honours will ensure those eager to step into his shoes may have to wait a few years yet.
When he addresses his team’s prospects, his enthusiasm knows no bounds.
‘We’re not going away. I’d expect us, without doubt, to have a real good challenge next year, too,’ he declared. ‘We’ve got a lot of youth in the team, there’s no doubt about that – we’re not going away; the record over the past 20 years tells you we’re not going away. Plus the fact that we’ll have players who are maturing nicely,
‘Rafa [Rafael] has proved how much he’s developed this season, David de Gea has progressed right through the season with absolute superb performances and he’ll get better next year.
‘[Shinji] Kagawa will be a far better player, I’m certain about that, and [Phil] Jones can do anything he wants to do.
‘There are a lot of plusses for us, and though we have to deal with the fact that one or two are getting older, I think we’re not so bad in terms of protecting most positions. There are maybe 14 players aged 23 or under who could play together here for another seven or eight years.
‘I think Arsenal will improve – there’s some indication that they are building a better squad than people think, and Tottenham have been progressing for a couple of years now.
‘So it’s a hard league to win, no doubt about that. But at this moment we just need to concentrate on winning the League this year.’
They could all but do that by beating City and winning at Stoke next Sunday, with Ferguson marvelling at the achievements of what he believes are the best squad he has assembled in his 26 years as boss.
‘Last Saturday’s win at Sunderland put it into perspective – 25 wins out of 30 – a model of consistency and a fantastic performance by them,’ he explained.
‘They’ve done the right thing, just focusing on winning the next game. And that’s what we’ll try to do on Monday. It’s the only way to approach it. Consistency is so important.’
On the issue of strength in depth, he added: ‘In terms of numbers it’s been our strongest squad, no doubt, therefore you expect to get the benefit of that. We’ve used the squad on one or two occasions. You might not get it 100 per cent, but I think our league position tells you we’ve done most things right.’
Ferguson gave an insight of how much he has been haunted by the title being snatched from his grasp last May when Sergio Aguero’s added-time winner against Queens Park Rangers won it for City on goal difference.
‘The one thing I said to the players at the start of the season was to make sure we didn’t lose the league on goal difference again; that was an essential part,’ he recalled. ‘We are 10 goals ahead of City at the moment, and although that could still change, we are in a much stronger position. What happened last year motivated United in the right way. We know how to build teams here.
‘For City, to win their first title in so many years was the biggest challenge for them. We responded to that. I don’t know what City’s points are compared to last year but it’s our performance that has created the problem for them.’
But he added: ‘We won’t be thinking about the gap on Monday night. The only thing we’ll think of is winning the game – and that’s the right way to approach it. If we do that, it will get us where we want to be.
‘And it doesn’t bother me if people don’t give us any credit for the way we play. We assess ourselves better than people outside the club. If we win the league, we can reflect on how good we’ve been. But we can’t take our eye off the ball now.’
‘We gave them two days off then we had them in and had a chat – you’ve got to wipe these things out of your memory quickly, because next Monday’s game is far more important than last Monday’s. And it’s a derby game.’