Football: Arsenal `cup final' sees Big Ron back in business

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The Independent Online
Ron Atkinson wanted to be back in the big-time - and you do not get much more grandiose than playing Arsenal at home. Guy Hodgson looks at the return of Big Ron to Sheffield Wednesday and at the weekend's other leading Premiership fixtures, while Nick Harris (below) analysis the programme match by match.

People either love Ron Atkinson or hate him, sometimes going from one extreme to the other in a matter of moments. They daubed "Judas" on Hillsborough's walls when he left Sheffield Wednesday in 1991 but, in retrospect, "Lazarus" would have been more appropriate.

Big Ron is back in management, back in the limelight and back at Wednesday. Just when you thought football had seen the last of his beaming grin he bounces in again promising nothing but a lack of tedium. "We have 25 cup finals," he said last week and this afternoon is the first: against Arsenal.

In theory it should be an easier fixture for a team who beat Manchester United in their last Premiership game but, as usual, Atkinson's view came from the sun-bed side of life. "I can't wait for kick-off," he said. "Arsenal at home is one of the great fixtures. If you want to compete, if you like a challenge, they are one of the teams you look forward to meeting. It's a tough match for us but I promise it'll be tough for them too."

That depends on which Wednesday makes it to the field, of course. Atkinson has only seen his new charges on television, but those who have watched them live have seen them lurch from the pathetic at Old Trafford to the sublime against Bolton last time out.

They beast Wanderers 5-0 under the guidance of Peter Shreeves, who was elevated on a temporary basis in the wake of David Pleat's dismissal. The loyal assistant is back in the same role this week, although Atkinson has insisted Shreeves has had most of the input since his arrival. "I've had a watching brief," he said. "The first thing I told Peter was `whatever you did against Bolton, do it this week and I hope you do it every week of the season'.

"It's been difficult waiting for the match to come but in some ways it's been the easiest selection I've ever had. It had to be same again after Bolton. It was a fantastic result."

Fifteen months ago it would have taken a fantastic set of circumstances for him to be warmly welcomed back by Wednesday supporters which shows that football is not so much a funny game as downright perverse. David Beckham, lauded and lampooned almost as much as Big Ron, knows that already and he will be able to retrace his entrance into a showbiz world at Selhurst Park today.

Beckham was a youngster oozing with promise before he scored from his own half against Wimbledon a year last August and with one kick shot into general recognition. Since the Manchester United midfielder has entered surreal life that includes Posh Spice, the paparazzi and terrace taunts every time he plays.

Two things are guaranteed today: Beckham will not score as spectacularly and the Wimbledon supporters will make frequent and uncomplimentary reference to his love life. George Best dated Miss Worlds and suffered less abuse from rival crowds than he inflicted on himself, which says something about how the politics of envy have moved on.

United, 12 points from their last eight matches, will be anxious to restore momentum in the League again and would welcome a Beckham goal from any distance if it ensures that they keep their noses ahead of Arsenal. Teddy Sheringham and Gary Neville, who missed England's friendly against Cameroon, are likely to be fit.

Barnsley used to envy sides going to places like Old Trafford and Anfield, but not now. On their last trip over the Pennines they were walloped 7- 0 by Manchester United and today the sadistic fixture computer has come up with Liverpool away.

It is difficult to decided who you feel more sympathy for, the Barnsley team, who look to have the same chance as Christians in the Coliseum, or Liverpool who will have to approach a magnificent seven to stop their supporters making unflattering comparisons with the team down the M62.

Liverpool have scored 13 goals in their last four home matches while conceding none, which is not bad for a team who endure more noises of displeasure from their own fans than any other leading side. At least no one can complain at Roy Evans' choice of strikers today as Robbie Fowler's suspension means Michael Own and Karlheinz Riedle can complement rather than compete with each other. Paul Ince, however, starts a suspension.

Blackburn Rovers, third, face Chelsea, who are fourth, at Ewood Park in a fixture that could define either club's season. It is the same for Aston Villa and Everton. If either loses at Villa Park today the poor manager will hear calls for his dismissal. Brian Little, or Howard Kendall will have at least one consolation: high profile football bosses are hard to eliminate. Big Ron proves that.