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Football: Only way to catch Chelsea is if the whole of the first team get malaria; TITLE OVER? FERGIE AND WENGER NOW REALLY ARE CLUTCHING AT STRAWS.

Byline: David MCDONNELL

SIR ALEX FERGUSON last night claimed the only way Manchester United can catch runaway Premiership leaders Chelsea is if Jose Mourinho's side are struck down by malaria.

United trail Chelsea by a whopping 13 points after their goalless draw with Arsenal and Fergie joked that only a plague descending on Stamford Bridge could change the outcome of the title race.

"You never know, malaria might hit the camp," said Fergie. "We've got to hope something like that happens."

Although Fergie's tongue was firmly in his cheek with that quip, he was serious in his subsequent admission that it could be another two or three years before United can match Chelsea.

By that time Fergie is unlikely to still be in charge at Old Trafford, which means the United boss must face up to the fact he may never add to his impressive haul of eight Premiership crowns.

"We hope to get to Chelsea's level eventually because we have a young team and we will get better," said Fergie in the aftermath of Tuesday's draw with Arsene Wenger's side, who are a massive 24 points adrift.

"You can see the improvement all the time in our team and you can see what is going to happen in two or three years' time when the younger players have matured.

"The likes of Wayne Rooney, Darren Fletcher, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ji-Sung Park, even Wes Brown and Rio Ferdinand, are all still young and are maturing all the time.

"We are in a rebuilding phase and it takes time, but I think we're getting there. And because of injuries I've had to rely on our youngsters more than I would have liked."

United defender John O'Shea added: "We wish we'd taken more than eight points from 12 over the festive period. With the pace Chelsea have set we needed to be getting 12 out of 12. But we just have to keep going until the end of the season.

"We want to finish this season very strong. Someone was telling me that this is our third best points tally for 10 years. So it's not as if we've gone backwards.

"The problem is that we've not stepped up to what Chelsea have done. That's the next challenge for us. We have to make sure we can challenge them and the kind of consistent run they are now on."

Such consistency became the hallmark of United's decade of domestic dominance between 1993 and 2003, when Fergie's swashbuckling sides marched to eight Premiership titles in 11 seasons.

But that remorseless consistency now belongs to Chelsea and there was little evidence at Highbury to suggest that United can come anywhere close to matching them in the near future.

United's form so far this season is better than in five of their eight title-winning seasons, a measure of how high Chelsea have raised the bar in the 18 months since Mourinho took charge. But that is scant consolation as United fans prepare themselves for a third successive season without the Premiership trophy at Old Trafford, an unthinkable scenario during their allconquering years.

With United unable to match Chelsea's spending power, Fergie must rely on the growth of the young players already at his disposal, while also improving on his own dealings in the transfer market.

The United boss has not helped his club's cause by making a host of ill-judged signings like Eric Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, Liam Miller, Diego Forlan and David Bellion in recent seasons.

Fergie will be not be able to turn the title race around with a couple more signings in the January transfer window, to add to the pounds 7.2million acquisition of Spartak Moscow defender Nemanja Vidic.

But if he does stay beyond the next season, the next six months and the summer will present him with the challenge of adding those players who can make United a match for Chelsea.

Unless Fergie - or his successor - can do that, United fans will have to get used to Chelsea emulating their achievements and becoming the Premiership's 'Untouchables' for years to come.



Chelsea, with the finishing post in sight, fail to win back-to-back titles for no apparent reason. In later years it is blamed on the shadow of Mourinho's ego getting in the way of the one-horse title race


Alistair Campbell is put in charge of media affairs. He sets up a photo opportunity with former players at Downing Street but it ends up in a mass brawl involving Jody Morris and Dennis Wise


The Stamford Bridge players become so incredibly wealthy they are all forced into tax exile and are only available for 10 games a season


Chelsea fail to get over the shock departure of Frank Lampard, who demands a transfer back to West Ham and admits he never wanted to leave in the first place


Rupert Lowe is elected to the Chelsea board and he immediately persuades the club to appoint Sir Clive Woo dward Director of Football. Blues don't win another point for the rest of the season


Abramovich empire crumbles after the Chelsea owner, holidaying on his pounds 500m yacht, falls overboard and is never seen again


Fergie's prayers are answered when out of the blue The Vatican ask Jose Mourinho to become the new Pope. C helsea go into meltdo wn and fail to win another match


With Jose off to the Vatican, Peter Kenyon is caught tapping up Fergie at a Greek restaurant and the club are kicked out for an illegal approach


STINGING REMARK: Fergie joked it might need a plague of mosquitoes to upset Chelsea' FEVER PITCH: How skipper John Terry might look if malaria struck - but Chelsea are confident of knocking spots off their rivals again this year
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 5, 2006
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