SYDNEY - Rio Ferdinand believes Manchester United are facing their toughest ever start to a Premier League season, with the fixtures computer pitting them against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City among their first five games.
The champions get their title defence underway in Swansea on August 17 with Chelsea and Liverpool next in line. Newly promoted Crystal Palace face a daunting task at Old Trafford after that with the Manchester derby set for September 22.
"It focuses us, definitely," Ferdinand, who recently signed a one-year contract extension, told the club's website during their pre-season tour in Sydney.
"There's no easing our way into the league this year. We've got to be ready to go from the off.
"We've got some big games in there but Swansea away is a really tough place to start. We've got to make sure we're ready for the start of the season because our first five games are probably the toughest that I've ever seen."
United could start the campaign without Wayne Rooney, who is reportedly "angry and confused" at comments from new boss David Moyes suggesting that he would play second fiddle to Robin van Persie this season.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho confirmed in Bangkok on Wednesday that the London club had made a bid for Rooney, although British news reports said United had turned down the offer.
Ferdinand did not address the Rooney situation but said that with Moyes on board after Alex Ferguson's retirement, everyone had to fight for their place.
"With a new manager coming in, we're going to be focused anyway, with people looking to prove themselves and places up for grabs," he said.
"There's an excitement in the squad and that will build as the start of the season gets closer."
Rooney is not with the squad in Australia after sustaining a hamstring injury on the club's visit to Thailand last week and returning to England for treatment.
United lost their opening pre-season tour game 1-0 to Thailand's Singha All-Star XI in Bangkok and next face the Australian A-League All Stars in Sydney on Saturday.
Ferdinand, who joined United in 2002, will be honoured with a testimonial match against Spanish side Sevilla on August 9.