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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Jan 20, 2006

Fergie relishing Reds test

There may be nothing more than second spot at stake at Old Trafford this weekend but Sir Alex Ferguson still regards Manchester United's tussle with Liverpool as a meeting between England's true giants.

The emergence of Arsenal - and latterly Chelsea - means it is now 18 seasons since the north-west giants finished first and second in the top flight.

Providing Chelsea do not suffer scarcely imaginable collapse over the final half of the campaign, by this summer it will be 16 years since the Championship trophy was last in residence at Anfield.

Even United have been left gasping in the wake of Chelsea's Abramovich-fuelled pursuit of glory.

Yet Ferguson remains convinced the Premiership's real power base remains embedded in two of the world's most famous names, split by far more than just 35 miles along the East Lancs Road.

'There is tremendous pressure on ourselves and Liverpool, more so than any other club,' explained Ferguson.

'If you look at the history books, there is no question we are the two most successful clubs in Britain.

'Because of the geography, there has always been a competition between Manchester and Liverpool and because they are just along the road, if one club is doing well, the other is sitting on your doorstep having to suffer.

'Some of our players, and maybe even some of our fans, may think differently but this is the game I look forward to most because it reflects the very reason for me being here.

'When I first came south, the challenge was to overhaul Liverpool. I knew what I had to do and thankfully I did it.'

Given the intensity of the rivalry and the passion Ferguson holds for beating the old enemy, how galling must it have been for the Scot to watch Liverpool walk off with the Champions League trophy in such dramatic fashion in Istanbul last May.

Unlike Wayne Rooney, who admitted to feeling `sick' at the sight of Liverpool's victory, and Ryan Giggs, who confirmed he did not even look at a newspaper for a week after the Reds' triumph, Ferguson has kept his true thoughts to himself.

Even now, he claims the motivation to improve in Europe comes not from Liverpool's unexpected triumph but United's failure to win the most prestigious club competition of all more than twice.

Yet, while he may not enjoy the same close friendship with Benitez as he did with the canny Spaniard's predecessor Gerard Houllier, Ferguson cannot have failed to notice the giant strides Liverpool have made in the Premiership this term.

After an unconvincing start to the campaign, the Merseysiders are currently on a 12-match unbeaten streak, during which they have won an impressive 11 times and conceded just two goals.

'The thing that has helped Liverpool this year is that they have not had many injuries,' said Ferguson.

'Rafael has had a clean bill of health for most of the season whereas last season he lost quite a few players and it does have an impact.'

One change to the United side which performed so poorly in the Manchester derby last week is certain as Cristiano Ronaldo is suspended. However, it appears Patrice Evra will not be sacrificed despite his disastrous debut at Eastlands.

Evra's fellow new recruit Nemanja Vidic will probably have to content himself with a place on the bench, while Alan Smith's hopes of a return from an ankle knock depend on him coming through a training session tomorrow.

Smith's presence in the United midfield could be vital as the hosts look to counter the threat of Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso in the Liverpool engine room.

The former Leeds man will certainly add some bite to the Red Devils tackling and help spice up an encounter which, contrary to the claims of Fernando Morientes, has always been played in the correct spirit.

'I have to think what Morientes has said has lost something in its interpretation,' said Ferguson.

'We had some meaty games involving people like Norman Whiteside and Steve McMahon when I first arrived.

'But for as long as I can remember, both sets of players have respected the importance of the game and played it in the right spirit.

'There has never been any lack of controversy and incident and there have been a few players sent off but there has never been anything which left me to say it had been a really physical match.'