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Sir Alex Ferguson admits Manchester United are feeling pressure from Manchester City in battle for supremacy

Sir Alex Ferguson has conceded that Manchester City have become a “thorn in our flesh” and that Manchester United now view their neighbours as a genuine threat for honours.

Ferguson, in a wide-ranging interview during Manchester United’s pre-season tour of the United States, also suggested Roman Abramovich had made a “bold” move by appointing the 33-year-old Andre Villas Boas as Chelsea manager, while forecasting a challenge ahead for both Liverpool and Arsenal if they are to emerge as title contenders this season.

Having changed the face of his United squad this summer by recruiting Ashley Young, Phil Jones and goalkeeper David de Gea to replace seasoned performers such as Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Edwin van der Sar, Ferguson insists he approaches his 25th anniversary as manager this November energised by the prospect of a new team emerging at Old Trafford.

But with Manchester City ready to spend big again in an effort to build on last season’s FA Cup triumph, Ferguson admits that the ‘noisy neighbours’ can no longer be ignored at Old Trafford.

“There was a period not so long ago when they were actually in the second division,” Ferguson said. “They were never a thorn in our flesh.

“Every year, we have had to contend with Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool. Nothing changes, one of them will always be a thorn in our flesh because you cannot change history.

“But it [success] takes the pressure off the manager and gives confidence to the players. We have experienced that ourselves and we expect them [City] to be challengers next year. Winning a trophy does a power of good.”

Although City’s financial power ensures their presence in the title race, the last seven Premier League seasons have been won by either United or Chelsea and Ferguson expects another stern challenge from Stamford Bridge, despite the inexperience of Villas-Boas following his arrival from Porto.

Villas-Boas has taken the same path to Chelsea as Jose Mourinho, with both men tasting European success at Porto before being hired by Abramovich, and Ferguson believes that Chelsea’s Russian owner is looking for his new manager to repeat the success enjoyed by Mourinho.

He described the appointment as “bold”, adding: “But I think Abramovich likes to do that. He had Jose Mourinho and maybe he’s trying to go back to that.

“You never knew whether Jose could do it at the time, but he proved a man of his time really, didn’t he?

“But it was a surprise because he [Villas-Boas] is just a young lad. I started at 32, but all I had was a physio.

“The difference now is that he can choose a staff of whatever he wants and that will help him. He’s also got a lot of experienced players.

“Chelsea have got the most experienced side in the league with the number of older players they have got, with Drogba, Terry, Lampard, Cech, Cole.”

Ferguson appeared to discount Kenny Dalglish’s hopes of restoring Liverpool to title contention by warning that the Premier League remains a “difficult league to win”, despite forecasting a “big improvement” at Anfield.

Arsenal’s hopes of ending their six-year trophy drought by dethroning United as champions appear compromised by the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the futures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, but Ferguson claims manager Arsène Wenger’s problems run deeper.

He said: “Look, you thought Arsenal were going to have a real chance last season. They got to the very brink and that means they’re going to be challengers this season.

“But it’s not easy to win the league. We waited 26 years at one point and it’s 20 years since Liverpool last won it. It happens sometimes.

“You’ve got to remember the way, when Jose Mourinho came, Chelsea all of a sudden just won their first six games in a row and we were all chasing our —— tails.

“We generally always took our time at the start of the league and usually waited until around February or March, but it changed our attitude after they won the two leagues. It became far more competitive.

“In 2000 and 2001, we won the league by lots of points and we only had Arsenal to worry about really, but now you’ve got one of four to worry about or even all four.

“So I think Arsenal have got caught in the draught that Chelsea created and, of course, them not winning the title for six or seven years has put a pressure on them.

“But it’s cyclical. The Barcelona team is a team of its time and it’s a cycle for them, a fantastic cycle, and you can’t really see it changing for the next two or three years.

“That happens in football. We went 26 years without winning the league and hopefully we don’t have to wait 26 years for the next one.”

But for Barcelona, Ferguson’s United could have found themselves enjoying their own cycle of European dominance. Yet two Champions League finals against Pep Guardiola’s team have resulted in two defeats, leaving United on three European Cups rather than elevating them to four or five.

The summer reshaping programme at Old Trafford is, Ferguson believes, capable of putting United on an equal footing with Barcelona this season, however.

“They are a challenge, but they’re a challenge to other clubs in Europe too,” Ferguson said. “We will try to move on and get above them, but the target is to be in Munich [Champions League final venue] in May next year and only then, if it’s Barca again, can we assess how we are able to cope with that.

“We will accept it. Barcelona played better than us the last time and this is the only way we can do it.

“We have lost five experienced players in the summer, five players who gave the club great service and you look at it and think it is a big slice out the cake, but we have replaced them by bringing Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley back from loans and added Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David De Gea.

“We have actually got 12 players aged 22 and under with us, so it could be an emerging team again. There are also some experienced players who are maturing and will carry the responsibility of performance.

“The young players will be desperate to get in their positions, so I think it is a healthy situation we are in. We have a good squad.”

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