Friday, May 11, 2007

FERGUSON's GIFT




Rio Ferdinand has revealed Sir Alex Ferguson's demand for Manchester United to hit the top of the tree at Christmas proved spot on in the battle for the Barclays Premiership title.

After falling way behind Chelsea in the early months of the previous two campaigns, Ferguson left his players in no doubt they needed to be right in the chase over the festive period if they were to stand any chance of bringing the championship back to Old Trafford.

Ferguson’s words proved prophetic as, when Chelsea stumbled, United took advantage, opening a gap which was never fully closed as the Red Devils’ status as England’s number one side was confirmed last weekend.

Ferdinand, who should be restored to the first XI against West Ham United on Sunday after being rested against Chelsea in midweek, told Sky Sports News: “For the last two years, we let the league go before Christmas.

“We had given ourselves a mountain to climb. But the boss said if you are there or thereabouts at Christmas, you have players of experience and the legs to go the distance - and it proved so.”

Alan Curbishley is confident West Ham can extend their recent excellent form and nail the point at Old Trafford that would confirm their Barclays Premiership status.

He said: “We’ve given ourselves a chance and, given the position we were in, that’s all we could ask for. It’s in our hands. It’s not been in our hands for so long.

“Perhaps this week the expectation levels have turned. We are playing well, we have got a settled side and there is no reason why we can’t go to Old Trafford and finish it off.

“Middlesbrough got a deserved point there a couple of weeks ago and we go there needing a point. Why not?”

Deposed champions Chelsea host Everton at Stamford Bridge, with one eye on the FA Cup final against successors Manchester United.

But midfielder Joe Cole is determined to end a disappointing season on a high and is eager to win both games.

He said: “After all that we’ve been through this season, it would be brilliant to round things off with an FA Cup final victory over Man United.

“It’s been really disappointing for everyone at Chelsea after first going out of the Champions League and then losing the Premiership title to Manchester United.

“It’s hard to describe how gutted we are all feeling because we had expectations to win both competitions this season.

“As for the league, it’s not been easy for us to give it up.”

Andrew Johnson seems certain to end his first season at Everton on the sidelines, but remains upbeat about the prospect of representing the Toffees in Europe next season.

The ankle injury which has ruled him out of the last two matches against Manchester United and Portsmouth is likely to keep him sidelined for the final game of the campaign against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Then Johnson will have an operation on his other ankle, a problem he has been carrying for months, and one that will end his interest in England’s coming fixtures.

But at least Johnson and his colleagues, who can only be denied a top-seven finish by freak results, will have European football to look forward to next season.

Johnson said: “It’s where everyone wants to play. It means so much to all the boys in the dressing room. We would have been devastated not to qualify. They want to play in Europe.

“That’s the main reason I signed for Everton. You’ve only got to see the Champions League matches on TV, those are the kind of games you want to play in.”

Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League final hero Jerzy Dudek insists that Rafael Benitez will one day win the Barclays Premiership title.

With Spanish goalkeeper Jose Reina nursing a shoulder injury and unlikely to be risked ahead of the Champions League final later this month, Dudek could well deputise against relegated Charlton Athletic.

Dudek, who became a Kop hero with his penalty shootout performance in Istanbul, said: “We are all happy with the way we have played in the Premiership in the second half of the season and I feel we are not too far away from winning it.

“Rafa knows what he has to do to take the club across the finishing line.

"If he is able to bring in quality players in the summer in one or two key positions then we will be very close next season.”

Dudek’s fellow keeper, Charlton youngster Darren Randolph is also set for a memorable weekend.

The Republic of Ireland youth international turns 20 on Saturday, and is expected to be in the Addicks starting line-up at Anfield 24 hours later with on-loan Scott Carson ineligible to play against his parent club.

Veteran Norway international Thomas Myhre, 33, is out of favour and Randolph - who spent a spell on loan at Gillingham earlier this season - is next in line.

“I am not 100% sure what the situation is with Thomas Myhre - but if I do play, it will be a mixture of relishing the opportunity and being a bag of nerves,” Randolph said.

“Any debut is special, but to make it at a place like Anfield would be a dream.”

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