MANCHESTER - Sir Alex Ferguson believes Aston Villa can break into the Premier League's top four this season after its impressive start to the campaign.
The Manchester United manager and his team face the in-form Midlands club at Villa Park Saturday with Martin O'Neill's club buoyed by a 2-0 victory at Arsenal last week. That result lifted Villa into fifth place, level on points with Arsenal and only one point behind third-placed United.
And Ferguson insists he has seen enough from Villa to predict a top four finish - presumably, at Arsenal's expense, a statement which comes at a time when Arsene Wenger's club are under intense pressure following a tempestuous start to the season.
"I think they have a chance. I think they can do that," Ferguson said of Villa. "At the moment they're level with Arsenal, just behind us, that's a good position to be in. It's a competitive league at the moment. We don't think we've hit our best ratio in terms of points gathered, but hopefully in the second half of the season that will happen for us because it could be an interesting league.
"Without question, Villa is an improving side and Martin has done a fantastic job there. He never changes his side much from the previous week so they have that consistency. "I thought their performance against Arsenal was outstanding last week and I expect a difficult challenge."
O'Neill was once actively discussed as a potential successor to Ferguson as manager at Old Trafford and, while such talk has died in recent years, his current efforts with Villa suggest that, when the veteran United manager stands down, the former Northern Irish international can expect his name linked with the job.
"Without question, Martin is one of the best managers in the game," Ferguson said. "He's proved himself.
"The only way you can judge managers is how they prove themselves over a period and the job he did at Leicester, Celtic and now Villa, shows he is an obvious top manager, no question about that."
United goes to Villa Park without former Tottenham forward Dimitar Berbatov, ruled out for at least two games, with a hamstring injury he collected on duty for Bulgaria in midweek.
But his problem is not as bad as first feared and Ferguson could have him back for the Manchester derby next weekend. Defender Wes Brown is out four to five weeks after undergoing exploratory ankle surgery this week and Rio Ferdinand continues his absence at Villa Park after injuring his back before last weekend's victory over Stoke.
However, Wayne Rooney is expected to return from a calf injury and Carlos Tevez will continue in a starting role at Villa Park with Danny Welbeck, a goalscoring Old Trafford debutant last week, also pushing for a place.
Ferguson added: "We've got options. Welbeck is a good one to have because he's fresh, he's improving and he's a different type of player from what we have. If Rooney is fit, I'm not in bad shape in terms of options up front."