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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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By ESPN Staff

Sir Alex backs Owen to handle Liverpool backlash

Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson is braced for another intense clash at Liverpool - but is confident the player likely to face the most flak will sail through.

Former Liverpool striker Michael Owen was jeered by a minority on the Kop as a Newcastle player, but that is nothing compared to his likely reception as a United player.

Owen, who quit Liverpool for Real Madrid in 2004, did the unthinkable for many a Reds fan when he joined United on a free transfer from Newcastle in the summer.

The clash of the north-west giants is hugely significant for troubled Liverpool, after four successive defeats, but Owen's return is one of a number of side issues which will also command attention.

Ferguson said: "Manchester United and Liverpool games are always intense. It is THE game, as far as I am concerned. That won't change.

"We are going in in decent form - there is a good confidence in our play. But it is a derby game, and anything can happen in derby games. It will be interesting to see the kind of reaction Michael gets but he's got the experience to handle it.

"There are very few players who have played for both clubs. Paul Ince obviously got a bad reaction from our fans when he went to Liverpool, and Michael might get that on Sunday.

"The goals he scored for Liverpool mark him down as one of their best-ever strikers. That stands him in good stead in terms of the Liverpool fans.''

United know victory would add considerably to the pressure growing on Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez.

Liverpool's dreadful recent run has left their Premier League and Champions League aspirations in a precarious state.

Ferguson was the subject of a remarkable verbal attack from Benitez last season, but the Scot would not be drawn into a war of words this time.

"I'm not going into that at all,'' he told the media. "I'm not making your headlines. I'm not interested in Liverpool. I'm only concerned about what we do on Sunday.''

Striker Wayne Rooney remains a doubt for the game as he continues to struggle with the calf injury suffered in England's World Cup qualifier in Ukraine a fortnight ago.

Ferguson feels there is a possibility the England striker - 24 tomorrow - could be fit. But there are no certainties.

"He is always desperate to play,'' said Ferguson. "That is the nature of the boy - you won't stop that. It is important how he does in training. If he does train we will have a better idea.''

Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra are both poised to return after suffering knocks against Bolton last week, but Darren Fletcher is also doubtful.

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