Sir Alex Ferguson warned his Manchester United stars not to rest on their laurels after Ryan Giggs sent the champions back to the top of the Premier League.
Giggs’ second-half strike at West Ham on Sunday clinched a 1-0 win that lifted United two points clear of second placed Liverpool with a game in hand.
A victory over Fulham in that additional game on Feb. 18 would open up a five-point lead.
But Ferguson knows from bitter experience that even substantial advantages can be overturned in the final stages of a title run-in as nerves take hold and he has no intention of letting his players take it easy now.
“Mistakes can be made. We had an 11-point lead over Arsenal in 1998 and lost the league, so we are not counting our chickens,” Ferguson said.
“We shouldn’t either because this game can come and bite you. This is a fantastic result and performance. It is time to kick on,” he said.
United’s victory at Upton Park may not carry the obvious significance of a win over Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal. But the result was still infused with meaning for Ferguson, who was encouraged by the way his team ground out yet another ruthless three points.
This was United’s 12th 1-0 win in all competitions this season and the team once regarded as cavalier thrill seekers are now happy to let their defensive qualities shine through.
United haven’t conceded a goal since Samir Nasri scored against them for Arsenal in November and Edwin van der Sar set a new British league record at Upton Park as he reached 1,212 minutes without conceding.
Yet Ferguson insists his team’s remarkable solidity won’t come at a cost to their attacking principles.
“I always felt one goal would be enough. Edwin has everyone jumping out of their skin at the moment because of the record,” Ferguson said.
“When you have that foundation, you are always hoping one of your skilful players can win the game for you, Cristiano Ronaldo or Dimitar Berbatov. This time it was Ryan,” he said.
“For Manchester United, over 20 hours without conceding a goal is extraordinary because normally it is 4-3. Great credit to the players. I am very proud of them,” Ferguson said.
“We’ve had a lot of crucial 1-0 wins and down the years we’ve found that scoreline important,” he said. “There has been a lot of focus on the defense because of the clean sheets record, but it doesn’t change the emphasis of the way we play.”
“We had some fantastic possession of the ball and the players on the pitch all like to attack,” the Scot said.
Ferguson was delighted to see Giggs share the limelight with van der Sar as the Wales winger scored his first league goal of the season.
“Ryan truly is a credit to the game. If anyone wants an example of how to dedicate themselves to football, you could have no greater example than Ryan Giggs,” he said.
Giggs has now scored in each of his 17 league campaigns with United and shows no signs of bowing out yet.
Ferguson has already hinted Giggs is likely to be handed another contract extension soon and West Ham boss Gianfranco Zola, who played until just a week short of his 39th birthday, believes Giggs can do the same if he wants to.
“He is a very good advertisement for football and young players. When somebody has got such a talent it is all down to the desire,” Zola said. “If you have the desire to carry on playing and challenging yourself all the time, he can play for many years.”