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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

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By ESPN Staff

Ferguson sees bright future for United's youngsters

Sir Alex Ferguson has tipped young guns Johnny Evans and Darron Gibson to gain full international honours for Northern Ireland within the next 12 months.

The pair are the most highly-rated players to emerge from last season's United Youth Cup squad, and Ferguson has already confirmed his intention to let them join feeder club Royal Antwerp on loan for the entire duration of the current campaign.

But the Red Devils chief does not believe playing in the Belgian Second Division will have any impact on their ability to win full caps despite the fact they are still only 18.

'Those two Irish boys are outstanding,' Ferguson said. 'I would not be surprised if Johnny Evans and Darron Gibson made the full Northern Ireland squad this season.

'I know that Northern Ireland are not endowed with anything like the standard of 20 years ago.

'Nonetheless, these two lads - while lacking experience - have great quality. It would not be a shock to me at all if they played for Northern Ireland.'

Gibson and Evans will be joined by full-back Danny Simpson in Antwerp, with Dong Fangzhou also returning to Belgium in the hope he can gain a UK work permit once he has completed three years at the club in December.

Of more immediate concern for Ferguson will be welcoming back the bulk of his squad from their post-World Cup break.

All United's England contingent are due at the Carrington training ground - along with Park Ji-sung, Edwin van der Sar and, most intriguingly, Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The Dutch striker was expected to have completed a move to either Real Madrid or Bayern Munich by now.

But as Ferguson reported on Saturday following his side's penalty shoot-out defeat to the Kaizer Chiefs in Pretoria, there was 'no progress' on any talks with potential suitors.

There must be a very real possibility Van Nistelrooy will not show up - a decision which would cost the Dutchman two weeks' wages but also bring a move to either Real Madrid or Bayern Munich a bit closer.

Ferguson is not putting deadlines forward for any of the deals - and with four weeks remaining before the Premiership season starts and another fortnight before the transfer window shuts, he still has quite a bit of time at his disposal.

But in pondering the immediate fate of his younger squad men, the Scot suggested all would be known within a fortnight.

'We have to make decisions over some of our younger players. But we won't do that for another two weeks before we know exactly how strong our squad is,' he said.