MANCHESTER: Alex Ferguson predicts a long, hard English Premier League title race with champions Manchester City after his team opened up a seven-point gap over rivals Chelsea.
Table-toppers Manchester United ground out a 1-0 victory over West Ham at Old Trafford thanks to Robin van Persie scoring the fastest goal of the Premier League season to date, after only 33 seconds.
It was only the third clean sheet United have kept in domestic football this season and bucked their trend of conceding first in nine of their opening 13 league games.
It was a far from vintage performance, but it was a vital win given City's 2-0 victory at Wigan on the same day kept the defending champions just a point behind.
''The three points means we're still ahead in the league and, with Chelsea drawing, it draws us away from them a little bit further,'' Ferguson said. ''But City are on our tails. It's going to be a long season. The importance of winning 1-0 in certain games is your opponents know the resilience is there. If you look at some of the really important one-nils we've had, go back to beating Newcastle when they were nine points clear of us [in 1996]. Our 1-0 that night won us the league. There are important 1-0 victories. We've had many of them.''
Given the scarcity of clean sheets for United this term, the fact his side were able to keep West Ham at bay for such a long period gave Ferguson as much pleasure as the large points cushion he enjoys over European champions Chelsea and their new manager Rafael Benitez.
''It is particularly hard, when you take the lead after one minute, to keep a clean sheet over the remaining 90-plus minutes, with time added on,'' Ferguson said. ''But in the main I thought we defended very well.''
Benitez's men were held by Fulham at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, Mark Schwarzer's clean sheet coming four days after Chelsea's draw with champions Manchester City.
Some believe the title contest is turning into a two-team race, given the recent upheaval at Stamford Bridge. But City manager Roberto Mancini is not one of them.
''I think Chelsea can compete. We are at the top at the moment, we are OK,'' Mancini said after Wednesday's win at the DW Stadium. ''I think this season is long. There are a lot of games in the next month and in February, if teams are playing in the Champions League, it can change everything.''
Van Persie has nine goals in 12 league starts this term. Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo's joint record for a 38-match Premier League season - 31 goals - will be under threat if he maintains this form.