UCL exit firing United title charge

There is a growing belief at Manchester United that an early Champions League exit has provided the impetus for an assault on the Premier League title.

Still going strong....

Even manager Sir Alex Ferguson has struggled to find a convincing explanation for how United have managed to combine their current run of eight wins in nine league games with bowing out of Europe's number one competition at the group stage, being hammered at home by Manchester City and dumped out of the Carling Cup by Crystal Palace.

While few are convinced by Ferguson's continued assertion that his midfield is strong enough to cope with every demand, given their current form maybe there is something in the Scot's equally vehement claim the present United trophy contenders have quality in abundance.

And, according to Antonio Valencia and Patrice Evra, who both made impressive contributions to Monday's 5-0 win over Wigan, there is also a renewed sense of purpose.

"The biggest blow was the Champions League because we are a big club and we are expected to be fighting to win the competition, not just qualifying from the group stages," said Valencia.

"We reached the final last year and it hurts to go out so early.

"But we are using that hurt. The group now tries even harder in training and we are going into games with a determined attitude because we've got to win something, whether it is the Premier League, Europa League or FA Cup.

"We have to make sure we are involved in those trophies and we have a renewed focus."

Evra, who has taken on the responsibility of captaincy after Nemanja Vidic was ruled out for the season with a cruciate knee ligament injury, shares many of Ecuadorian Valencia's sentiments.

"Going out of the Champions League was a wake-up call," Evra said.

"Everyone began to look in the mirror and say we could do much better.

"The fans expect what we are doing now.

"But nothing is easy. If we stop working hard and think we will only win things with the Manchester United name, everything will be wrong.

"We have to keep our momentum going and trust each other."

It is the basis upon which Ferguson's entire managerial ethos rests.

While outsiders may continue to question him - Ferguson's observation of life in the 'Twitterverse' is particularly intriguing - as he approaches his 70th birthday, the United boss looks at his squad and backs them to deliver.

And, so many times, they do.

The latest example of a player coming good is Dimitar Berbatov, whose contribution has been reducing for almost 12 months.

United's £30.75million record signing did not even make the bench for last season's Champions League final and had started just one Premier League game in this campaign prior to Monday's encounter.

Yet he was the one who walked off with the match ball, even if his hat-trick goal came from a penalty that should never have been given.

"I am always happy when Dimitar is scoring," said Evra.

"He is a nice guy who has had some difficult moments because he hasn't played a lot.

"But when you see the strikers we have got; Danny Welbeck is on fire, then there is Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney.

"This is the life at Manchester United.

"We have to keep the competition for every place. Everyone has to fight."

Berbatov is in the unusual position of being able to speak to potential suitors from next month, all the time knowing United can choose, at any point, to extend his present deal, that is due to expire in the summer, by a further 12 months.

It seems implausible they would allow such a costly member of their squad to leave for nothing, so Berbatov will surely be tied down for a further season, unless Ferguson concludes United will just end up letting him go in 12 months' time anyway.

That saga takes a secondary priority to getting some of the 11 players presently on the injured list fit for the New Year's Eve encounter with bottom side Blackburn.

Victory would provide Ferguson with the perfect 70th birthday present of a three-point lead at the Premier League summit given Manchester City are not in action at Sunderland until 24 hours later.

"I said a few weeks ago that someone is going to suffer," said Ferguson of a productive last two games that has brought his team six points and 10 goals.

"Fortunately they are coming at the right time of the season.

"We know if we can get to the top on New Year's Day, along with Manchester City, we have a chance."



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