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Friday, 7 February, 2003, 12:32 GMT
The difference a day makes

Saturday, 9 November 2002.

The date will have been etched into the memory of every Manchester United player and fan alike.

It proved to be the day when United suffered the ultimate humiliation.

A 3-1 defeat at the hands of arch rivals Manchester City was the nadir of an already troubled season.

In the immediate aftermath, Sir Alex Ferguson could not even bring himself to mutter a word to City boss Kevin Keegan.

The stonewall silence spoke volumes.

If we get to within a point of Arsenal again I don't think we'll slip up

Sir Alex Ferguson

When the reaction came, United's players felt the full wrath of their manager and, if Sir Alex had had his way, the fans would have had their chance too.

"I've given them a bollocking, and quite rightly," fumed Sir Alex.

"You can't accept that. I just feel sorry for the fans.

"I wish I could let them into the dressing room so the players would know what they are thinking."

It was the sheer poverty of United's performance that so incensed Ferguson.

Despite being shorn of Roy Keane, David Beckham and Nicky Butt for the game, United were comprehensively outplayed.

There was simply no case for the defence, either during or after the encounter.

Gary Neville, the most fervent Red at Old Trafford, arguably played the worst game of his life.

Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand failed to contain the threat of Man City striker Nicolas Anelka
Ferdinand failed to contain Anelka in the derby

His abject display so endeared him to the Maine Road faithful that they sang "Gary Neville is a Blue."

Another nightmare afternoon for Fabien Barthez, a calamity show by Rio Ferdinand and Laurent Blanc, and Juan Sebastian Veron playing the footballing equivalent of Russian roulette gave United the result they deserved.

That Phil Neville was handed the captain's armband midway through the second half encapsulated United's lack of leadership.

But what a difference a day makes.

Ferguson threatened to wield the axe over his star-studded cast and ordered them to win their next four Premiership games - West Ham, Newcastle, Liverpool and Arsenal.

Bar the draw at Upton Park, United's response was emphatic.

Victories over all three of their closest rivals put United on the road to salvation as they sought forgiveness for their derby debacle.

Wes Brown and Mikael Silvestre formed the basis of a far steadier United defence.

Arsenal striker Thierry Henry and Manchester United's Phil Neville
Phil Neville had the game of his life against Arsenal

Diego Forlan was the hero against Liverpool at Anfield and Barthez redeemed himself with a breathtaking save to deny Dietmar Hamann an equaliser.

What epitomised United's resurgence most was Phil Neville's colossal midfield display against Arsenal, when he managed to outplay the usually imperious Patrick Vieira.

Phil Neville conceded the derby defeat was the turning point in United's season.

"People questioned our hunger and desire after the game. Looking back, the pleasing thing was how we reacted to the defeat," he said.

There is a familiarity to the way in which United have responded to adversity. Last-gasp wins over Sunderland and Chelsea have maintained the Reds' impressive momentum.

Premiership top five
1. Arsenal 56 pts
2. Man Utd 53 pts
3. Newcastle 48 pts
4. Chelsea 45 pts
5. Everton 45 pts

But it is not just the players who have rediscovered their focus.

After United had recorded their 16th win from their last 19 Premiership games against Birmingham on Tuesday, Sir Alex immediately turned his attention to Sunday.

"This weekend should now be very interesting because, with only three points in it, Arsenal have to go to Newcastle," he said.

"We got to within a point of Arsenal before Christmas and then lost two on the trot. If we get to within a point of them again I don't think we'll slip up.

"We're playing well and we have to stay on Arsenal's coat tails and not let them go this time around."

So make a note of the date. Sunday, 9 February 2003.

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