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By ESPN Staff

Fergie: United close to securing Ferdinand deal

MANCHESTER, England, April 4 (Reuters) - Manchester United are close to securing a new long-term contract for defender Rio Ferdinand at Old Trafford, manager Alex Ferguson said on Friday.

Ferdinand, 29, has two years left to run on his contract with the Premier League champions but has opened talks on a new deal.

'We have been negotiating for a few weeks now and I don't think we are far away, although you know what negotiations are like nowadays. They are never easy,' Ferguson told reporters.

Ferdinand, who captained England in their international friendly against France last week, recently said he would like to finish his career at United, the club he joined from Leeds United in 2002 for a then British record fee of 30 million pounds ($60 million).

His outstanding form this season has helped United chase a domestic and European double, keeping clean sheets in their last five league games and their 2-0 Champions League quarter-final first-leg victory at AS Roma on Tuesday night.

'I have always said if you defend well you can win things. If we keep defending right like that we have the forwards to cap on our defensive strength,' said Ferguson.

Ferdinand's partnership with Nemanja Vidic has been the bedrock of United's success but Vidic will now be missing for up to three weeks with the knee injury he sustained in Rome.

'It's still a loss but I think we can cope,' added Ferguson, who was relieved not to lose the Serbia international for the rest of the season.

'We have got Silvestre back, Neville back, Piquet, John O'Shea and Wes Brown so we are very well covered in that position.'

Gary Neville returns to United's squad for the first time in over a year for Sunday's trip to mid-table Middlesbrough after finally regaining full fitness following an ankle injury.

League leaders United, who hold a five-point advantage over Chelsea going into the weekend games, will be looking to maintain their lead by securing a seventh successive win.

'We are approaching the finishing line,' said Ferguson. 'There is not long to go now but sometimes it's a lifetime away because at this time of year the nerves can play a part, form plays a part and you can get a shock result. We have to make sure our form stays consistent.'

Portugal Winger Nani, is still out with a thigh injury but could return for Wednesday's second leg against Roma.