Sir Alex Ferguson is used to new challenges. In Manchester United's two decades at the top he has experienced intense title rivalry with Arsenal and then Chelsea, though now it appears Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur are the greatest dangers. And, though United visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon, a ground where they have not won in the league for a decade, Ferguson believes Spurs a month later could prove the tougher trip.
"We'll certainly be glad to get the two games out of the way," the United manager says. "Chelsea away followed by Spurs away is a tough spell for us and, if we can get through them both and still be in a good position, it gives us a chance. The league table suggests Tottenham might be the harder game because they have been playing well all season and they are challenging for the title.
"We have had some fierce battles with Chelsea over the years but this time they might not finish in the top four. I am certain Spurs will qualify for the Champions League this season, so if the two Manchester clubs stay in there as well, that only leaves one spare place. The way it looks at the moment, either Arsenal or Chelsea are going to miss out."
That Arsenal and Chelsea have found it difficult to maintain momentum over the years while United have remained a constant in pushing for the title is a testament to the stability and sustainability of Ferguson's long reign. "Arsenal used to have some very good sides and you knew you would be in for a tough, physical encounter," he says.
"That has changed in recent years. Chelsea used to get off to terrific starts to the season under José Mourinho. They caught us cold at first until we started to make sure we could do the same. For the past seven years all our games with Chelsea have been battles, nip and tuck all the way, but you can see the new manager is trying to introduce a different style. Didier Drogba is getting a bit older and they have let Nicolas Anelka go but players like Ramires and Juan Mata have been brought in and Daniel Sturridge is a real threat."
Chelsea were beaten 3-1 at Old Trafford in September, in a game so open Ferguson suggested the final score could have been 20-18, back at the stage of the season when United were still giddy with their 8-2 win over Arsenal and unaware that a 6-1 home defeat in the Manchester derby was around the corner. If you had told Ferguson after that result that he would go into February level on points with City at the top of the league he would have been extremely relieved, Chelsea and Arsenal have not proved quite as adept at reacting to a new set of circumstances.
"The landscape has changed in the Premier League this season," Ferguson says. "All of a sudden Spurs and City have come along and they have both got genuine title aspirations. But that's what makes the English league so great. If you look almost anywhere else around Europe – Spain, Germany, Portugal – it's a two-horse race every time. France is the only country with a league that is anything like as competitive as ours, and the fact that there are two new title challengers in England this season is what makes this league really special. There used to be a top four, and some people used to complain about it being set in stone, but it isn't any more. United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool always used to go into the Champions League, but now there are two new teams in the picture and two of the old ones could miss out."
David de Gea, who came in for criticism when United went out of the FA Cup at Liverpool last weekend and replaced by Ben Amos for the win over Stoke City, is likely to return on Sunday, with Anders Lindegaard still injured. Ben Amos deputised in midweek and enjoyed a surprisingly quiet evening against Stoke, but Ferguson feels Stamford Bridge will be an intimidating arena for a player with only a single Premier League game under his belt. "You need experience in these situations," he says.
"David has found it difficult to adapt to the English game and has made a few mistakes, but I don't think we will be talking about those in a few years from now. It is always hard being the new Manchester United goalkeeper and it is a hard task to replace someone of the stature of Peter Schmeichel or Edwin van der Sar, but David has a great talent and the reason we went for someone young is so he could develop into the role. The problem we had with corners at Liverpool was really due to the centre-backs, not him. We had sorted it out by the second half and it shouldn't happen again."