The Manchester United manager concedes his side's hopes of wrestling the Premier League title back to Old Trafford rest with QPR, who face Manchester City on Sunday.
Hope is all Ferguson's men have left
MANCHESTER // It was not so much the latest example of his famous mind games as simply an honest admission.
Asked, just before kick off at Old Trafford and after Manchester City had won 2-0 at Newcastle United, if his rivals had one hand on the Premier League trophy, Sir Alex Ferguson replied: "Probably two."
A couple of hours later, little had changed. As expected, Manchester United had defeated Swansea City but the standout score line was City's victory on Tyneside.
Now United's hopes of a fifth title in six seasons rest in the hands of Queens Park Rangers, City's opponents on Sunday.
Ferguson hardly exuded optimism beforehand, and if that had changed after the final whistle, it was because his end-of-season address on the Old Trafford turf required a rallying cry.
"Hopefully next week it will be the biggest celebration of our lives," he said. The key word was the first. Ferguson was speaking more in hope than expectation. "You have to think there's hope," he said. Their chances are remote, however, and he knows it.
While they are level on points, City's goal difference is superior by eight. The gap could have been closed on an afternoon of profligacy at Old Trafford but, after first-half strikes from Paul Scholes and Ashley Young, United lacked a clinical touch.
If their local rivals depose them as champions, however, it will not be the result of missed chances as much as two derby defeats. Since Monday's loss at the Etihad Stadium, United have been reliant on others for favours. Newcastle, the likeliest candidates, could not oblige. Their best chance had gone before they had kicked off.
Ferguson praised his players for their professionalism but a subdued start suggested City's win had affected footballers and fans alike.
Indeed, the only notable early effort came from Swansea, Nathan Dyer curling a shot over the United bar. Twenty minutes had elapsed before the home side mustered a response when Michel Vorm made a wonderful double save, parrying volleys from first Patrice Evra and then Wayne Rooney.
There was little the Dutchman could do, however, when Scholes beat him with typical artistry. The goal had its origins on United's right flank, where Antonio Valencia glided past Neil Taylor and picked out Michael Carrick. The midfielder opted for precision over power with his shot, enabling the waiting Scholes to divert it past Vorm with a back-heeled flick.
Thereafter, United accelerated through the gears. Javier Hernandez headed over, Rooney's attempted curler just cleared the bar and, after a sliding Angel Rangel blocked the top scorer's effort, Young placed the rebound through a packed penalty area and in to the far post.
"Ashley Young absolutely sprints into the goal to get the ball and that tells me they think they can get a load of goals," said Brendan Rodgers, the Swansea manager.
But the floodgates did not open. Chris Smalling headed wide on the stroke of half time, but the margin between the teams remained the same. Hernandez, enduring an off-day, found the roof of the net and Valencia was denied by the sliding Neil Taylor.
Recalled after starting Monday's Manchester derby on the bench, the Ecuadorean was influential. So, too was Young, another of those restored, as United reverted to a more recognisable side and shape. It made for an open encounter and virtually everyone, from the right-back Phil Jones to the replacement Tom Cleverley, had the chance to add a third goal.
The most glaring miss came from the man most accustomed to scoring. Rooney is looking to equal his career-best total of 34 goals in the season but, after slick interplay between Valencia and Carrick, he only contrived to spoon a shot wide.
His afternoon was soon ended, Ferguson substituting his talisman in what appeared an admission the game was up.
Meanwhile, the visitors had opportunities of their own. David de Gea twice pushed long-range efforts from Gylfi Sigurdsson away while Danny Graham almost managed to redirect Joe Allen's shot past the Spanish goalkeeper.
Yet they were the subplot, United's frustration the theme of the day. They entered the field with the on-pitch announcer calling them champions, but it is a title they are likely to lose in six days' time, unless QPR can do something special.
"Stranger things have happened in football," Ferguson said. "You never know." But the sense was that, if he does not know, he fears the worst.
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE