Van der Sar eyes three wins against 'big four'
Edwin van der Sar has set Manchester United the goal of collecting maximum points from their remaining three games against the Premier League's 'big four'.
United gathered 13 points from a possible 18 in matches against Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool last term on their way to the title.
Already, Sir Alex Ferguson's men know they will not match that total this term as yesterday's 2-1 defeat at Arsenal means they only collected one draw from their three away games.
And keeper van der Sar accepts the Red Devils will need to show their strength at Old Trafford later in the year if they are to muscle their way back into the title picture.
''We have played all three away now,'' reflected the veteran Dutchman.
''I am not concerned about our results against the top teams because we have been unlucky in all three games.
''We have to make sure we get the nine points from the home games against them at Old Trafford.''
Should United fail to complete a title hat-trick, it is easy to spot where Ferguson felt it all went wrong.
A combination of commitments in the European Super Cup and World Club Cup, plus a hopelessly unbalanced fixture list, means the champions are virtually certain to be trailing their major rivals heading into 2009.
If the gap is not totally unbridgeable, then the sheer weight of fixtures will make the task incredibly difficult, especially if United's run in the Carling Cup - they face QPR for a place in the last eight on Tuesday - does not come to an end.
With all last season's top eight to face before Christmas and away games immediately after every Champions League fixture, it is little wonder Ferguson was left grumbling about a handicap system that appears to be in operation.
''They say the league is not handicapped - I am not so sure,'' he said.
Having clambered above Arsenal prior to yesterday's encounter at the Emirates Stadium, van der Sar agreed United had passed up a perfect opportunity to cement that status.
''It was a chance to get a psychological blow over one of our rivals,'' he said.
''If we had beaten them, or even drawn, we would have kept them below us. Now we have let them back in.''
As at least half a dozen senior men will be rested for the QPR game, Ferguson has a week to get them prepared to face a physical onslaught from Stoke, not a straightforward task on the evidence of the Potters' meeting with Arsenal a week ago.
The Scot also has a couple of problems to solve. For all Dimitar Berbatov's excellence in recent games, he was fairly anonymous against the Gunners and now may be the time to reignite Wayne Rooney's partnership with Carlos Tevez, temporarily at least.
Then there is Gary Neville. It would be complete folly to write off a player of such vast experience but his form since returning from major ankle and calf injuries this season has been patchy. At the same time, Rafael Da Silva has been brilliant.
In a game of such magnitude, Ferguson was surely right to leave the 18-year-old on the bench. Equally, he was spot on when he introduced the young Brazilian just after an hour.
He was rewarded with another effective contribution, plus a goal, something Neville has only managed seven of in more than 550 appearances.
Whether Rafael - one of those pencilled in to face QPR - would be ideally suited to meeting Stoke is open to debate.
But at some point he is going to become United'sfirst choice right-back, and the day may not be that far off - even if the challenge is bound to spur Neville on.
''Of course, if you get a win you are always happy and confident,'' said Van der Sar as he reflected on Arsenal's rise.
''But I don't want to talk about them. We are disappointed because we should have got something from the game and didn't.
''Now we have to focus on Tuesday and next Saturday in the league because we need to start winning again.''