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By ESPN Staff

Ferguson sounds title challenge for next season

Sir Alex Ferguson has vowed Manchester United will be a credible title force next season despite their mauling at Stamford Bridge.

At first glance, United's 3-0 defeat to Chelsea does not offer much hope of Ferguson's men reclaiming Premiership superiority in 12 months' time.

While the Red Devils had been in sparkling form leading up to their clash with the newly-recrowned champions, they left the capital chastened by their second biggest defeat at their rivals' home since 1930.

Only a freak five-goal hammering in 1999 prevented the loss being the worst United have suffered at `The Bridge' during the intervening three-quarters of a century and with Wayne Rooney's injury thrown in, there was not much room for optimism.

Yet Ferguson retains some. Aside from the defensive blunders, which the return of Gabriel Heinze should resolve, and the lack of a cutting edge up front, which he feels was just a temporary blip, the United boss is convinced his side will be right on Chelsea's heels next season, irrespective of the 12-point margin that now exists between the sides.

'We are determined to challenge next season and we will definitely be in amongst it,' he said.

'What this has shown is that if you do not defend properly, you will lose matches like that.

'The goals we gave away were very soft but that is the only thing that disappoints me because overall, the scoreline did not reflect the run of play.'

With further question marks being placed over the future of Mikael Silvestre, who inexplicably went AWOL as William Gallas netted Chelsea's early opener, and the midfield partnership between Ryan Giggs and John O'Shea exposed at the very highest level, Ferguson has certainly been left in no doubt which areas of the side he needs to address.

If Heinze has fully recovered from the slight groin injury he picked up on reserve team duty in midweek, he could quite easily be restored to Ferguson's starting line-up for tomorrow's encounter with Middlesbrough.

Rooney's absence should at least allow Ruud van Nistelrooy to end the season as part of the United side, although the Dutchman's omission in favour of Louis Saha against Chelsea offers the biggest indicator yet he is no longer regarded as an essential component of Ferguson's quest for greater glory.

The most immediate priority over the final week of the campaign is to pick up the victory which would cement an automatic place in next season's Champions League.

Second spot may not be good enough for a team of United's standing but it would at least ease the pressure from their pre-season campaign.

'We want to finish second and we want to win our next two games,' said Ferguson, whose side provide the opposition for Alan Curbishley's final game as Charlton boss next Sunday.