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Jul 27, 2009

Let the games begin

The murky labyrinth of mind games and goading has started already, with three weeks still to go until the start of the Premier League season.

Sir Alex Ferguson has long since been crowned king of this dark and mischievous art.

A comment here, a quip there or a simple throwaway accusation; he knows what he's doing and more often than not he gets a bite from his prey.

From the explosion of Kevin Keegan to the continual wrangling with Arsene Wenger right through to the infamous "Rafa Rant" last season, seldom does Sir Alex fail to come out on top.

This summer, however, it's almost as if the tables have turned without his subject even trying.

Following a week scathing attacks on Manchester City, Sir Alex may be a little bemused that he's not managed to get a rise out of Mark Hughes. City may be in South Africa at the moment but there's little doubt the various sound bites will have found their way to Jo'burg.

The 67-year-old's cheeks have become a little more red after someone connected to City decided to plaster a huge poster of Carlos Tevez in the city centre which declared: "Welcome to Manchester."

Our global audience may find this confusing, considering that Tevez spent the last two years with United before opting to reject a permanent deal in favour of signing for City. But there is a long-running joke among City fans that while they play in the Borough of Manchester, United's ground is actually in the Borough of Trafford - thus making the blue half Manchester's only true club.

It is purely a cosmetic fact and no one other than those involved in the rivalry would find it relevant. But United have had this rammed down their throats for many years - to such an extent that a marketing company employed by the Eastlands club at one stage produced a whole range of official merchandise heralding their "unique" status.

It seems the latest stunt - no one has claimed responsibility for the poster - has flicked a switch inside the veteran coach. He lost a player the fans loved and who was perceived to have proved Sir Alex Ferguson wrong for signing Dimitar Berbatov. That, coupled the fact he's joined their rivals from across the city and had his image used to force it home, has tipped him over the edge.

City supporters have also been revelling in the signing of Michael Owen, producing spoof emails of the one-time England striker on crutches entering the ground, though United may have the last laugh after he scored four goals in three matches during the tour of Asia.

Ferguson came out fighting on Tuesday by insisting Man City had paid too much for Tevez. ''I didn't think he was worth £25m - that's just my judgement, maybe I am wrong,'' he said. That flies in the face of the fact that United were prepared to pay the same price and the only reason they didn't was that Tevez rejected the contract.

Player and manager had already enjoyed, or endured, a game of accusation tennis with both parties blaming each other for the breakdown of their relationship. The truth is probably that Tevez did not want to stay and Sir Alex didn't want him either.

Sir Alex scoffed at Mark Hughes' claim that City have the power to challenge United at the top of the table. "It won't be easy for City to win anything, even with the players they have bought," he said. "I cannot look at Manchester City as our main competitors."

He cranked it up another notch at the weekend, first of all by launching a tirade about the Tevez poster and accusing City of being jealous of United from the moment he arrived from Aberdeen. And he saved the best until last on Sunday when suggesting that Emmanuel Adebayor had been so desperate to avoid signing at the City of Manchester Stadium that the striker stalled on the deal and tried to engineer a move to United or Chelsea.

He finished off by saying, in reference to the Tevez poster: "It's City isn't it? They are a small club with a small mentality. All they can talk about is Manchester United; they can't get away from it."

Many will remember Rafael Benitez saying the same about Everton a few seasons back and being castigated for it by Sir Alex. The difference is that Benitez produced his comments off the cuff after failing to beat the Goodison Park outfit, while Sir Alex probably feels he is hitting back in a summer sparring match.

Thing is, City have hardly been fighting back and are not throwing any punches themselves. Maybe Sir Alex does feel threatened. Maybe he really is feeling a little jealous that his pot is empty, despite pouring £80m into it, while City seemed ready to splash more than that on John Terry, Joleon Lescott and Kolo Toure.

Perhaps Sir Alex is aware this season is going to be a real struggle as Liverpool are poised to end their wait for the title just as the greatest manager English football has seen considers calling it a day. The pressure is on.

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