Football: Chasing pack not yet pursuing a lost cause

The destination of the Premiership is not yet a foregone conclusion, says Phil Shaw, while Nick Harris (below) gives a match-by match analysis of the weekend's action
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THE sight of Manchester United looking down on the entire Premiership, seven points clear with less than a third of the season remaining, is a persuasive argument for the view that their rivals are now playing for the right to be regarded as the best of the rest.

The late Billy Bremner once wrote a book titled You Get Nowt For Being Second, which is of course no longer true. The runners-up place now brings participation in the lucrative European Champions' League and is therefore not to be sniffed at. But despite the collective failure of Liverpool, Chelsea, Blackburn and Arsenal to take advantage of United's poor run since Christmas, it may be premature for any of their number to start mentally conceding the title.

Alex Ferguson suggested after United's 2-0 win at Aston Villa in midweek that the champions' performance had been their best since Boxing Day, with the exception of the 5-3 FA Cup victory at Chelsea. That may have been true, yet only in the context of their sub-standard displays against Coventry, Southampton, Leicester, Bolton and Barnsley. It could not disguise the fact that United were desperately ordinary until the final 15 minutes.

Today, with that important win behind them and back at Old Trafford, another three points might appear to be a formality. However, Derby's record against United, not to mention their pressing need for points towards a Uefa Cup berth, means it is likely to be another uncomfortable afternoon for Ferguson.

Derby have won on three of their last four visits to United - the most recent success coming last spring when Paulo Wanchope sprung to national fame - and have not lost in the clubs' three meetings under Jim Smith's management.

The match brings together two exponents of "squad rotation", the fashionable phrase which figured prominently in reports of Ruud Gullit's demise at Chelsea. With the European Cup in mind, Ferguson has rested key players. Now, with virtually a full pool to choose from, he is likely to send out his strongest side. Smith held back Francesco Baiano last weekend, although he is surely too influential not to play today.

For Arsene Wenger, juggling resources is a necessity. Because of injuries and international calls, the Arsenal manager is having trouble finding 11 fit men for the home fixture with Crystal Palace. Even Dennis Bergkamp, whose fear of flying meant he stayed behind when Marc Overmars went with the Dutch squad to the United States, is struggling.

It is hardly the ideal preparation for two meetings with Palace in four days (the second is Wednesday's FA Cup replay) which could well define Arsenal's season. Despite the Coca-Cola Cup exit at Stamford Bridge, a win today, plus another in their match in hand, would leave them at worst three points behind United.

After the excitement of taking Chelsea to Wembley in his first match in charge, Gianluca Vialli comes down to earth at Leicester. There is a symbolic symmetry to the Italian's first match as Gullit's successor being at Filbert Street. It was there, 18 months ago, that he found himself relegated to the bench for the first time.

On that occasion, Vialli came on after half-time and scored immediately. Today, in the absence of Ed de Goey, he must choose between Dimitri Kharin and Kevin Hitchcock for the goalkeeper's jersey, knowing the Russian has already stated his intention to leave if he does not regain his place.

Blackburn's challenge continues at Southampton, where they last won 60 years ago. They will be thankful not be facing the injured Kevin Davies, whose scoring exploits have catapulted him into the pounds 4m class since Graeme Souness bought him for pounds 750,000 in his last act as the Saints' manager.

Sheffield Wednesday and Tottenham, both under new management since they met last autumn, reconvene at Hillsborough, although the former home manager David Pleat will not be present. He will instead watch a European target in his new capacity as Spurs' director of football.

His successor at Wednesday, Ron Atkinson, previously held Pleat's current title at Coventry. The past two months have made it clear why the Sky Blues felt they could cope without him. Gordon Strachan has made such spectacular progress that it will rank as a major upset if Barnsley end 75 years without a win at Highfield Road.

Strachan, whom Chelsea's new player-manager cited with Ferguson and Wenger as the three to whose standards he aspired, must decide whether to restore the snip of the season, George Boateng, after the pounds 250,000 midfielder's absence with the Dutch Under-21s.

As the man who once said that if he had made Eric Cantona's remarks about sardines and trawlers, people would have thought he was "just a wee Scottish bum talking crap", we can safely assume that Strachan will not be discoursing on the merits or otherwise of squad rotation.

Arsenal v C Palace

Bergkamp 16 Leading scorer Shipperley 6 Last season: No fixture

Arsenal's injury problems mean teenage centre back Matthew Upson will get his second Premiership start and youngsters Isiah Rankin and Jason Crowe may also be in contention for places. Tony Adams and Chris Wreh are both serving bans while winger Marc Overmars is in America with the Dutch national squad. David Seaman and Ian Wright are still out injured and midfielder Ray Parlour is ruled out with hamstring trouble. Dennis Bergkamp, Nigel Winterburn and Gilles Grimandi all face late fitness tests after the Coca-Cola Cup defeat at Chelsea in mid-week. Martin Keown returns to the squad.

Crystal Palace manager Steve Coppell adds strikers Marcus Bent and Matt Jansen to the squad which drew at Arsenal in the FA Cup last weekend. Both recent signings were cup tied last week but Bent has a good chance of making the starting line-up tomorrow. Jansen picked up a dead-leg in a reserve game earlier this week and is doubtful to make his debut. Michele Padovano and Attilio Lombardo are at least a week away from returning, while Neil Shipperley and Paul Warhurst will not start training for another three weeks.

Bolton v West Ham

Blake 10 Leading scorer Hartson 19 Last season: No fixture

Bolton will be without Scott Sellars, who begins a two-game ban today. Manager Colin Todd will decide between John Sheridan and Michael Johansen for the vacant position. Striker Dean Holdsworth will return after a 12 week absence with knee and calf injuries to replace Bob Taylor who has returned to West Bromwich after a month's loan with the Wanderers. Scott Taylor has returned after a loan spell with Rotherham. Bolton will be hoping to produce a performance on a par with the one that gave them a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford a fortnight ago as they look for a first Premiership win since 1 December.

West Ham manager Harry Redknapp will give late fitness tests to John Moncur and Tim Breacker who both have groin problems. Paul Kitson is definitely ruled out with a similar injury but David Unsworth returns to the side after a hamstring problem. Both Samassi Abou and Steve Lomas are suspended with extra one-match bans imposed by the Football Association for laying hands on referees as they were being sent off in previous games.

Coventry v Barnsley

Dublin 16 Leading scorer Redfearn 10 Last season: No fixture

Gordon Strachan has selection dilemmas as Coventry look for a club record six-match winning sequence. Paul Telfer, Richard Shaw and George Boateng are all available again and Strachan has to decide whether to recall them. If Shaw plays, Dion Dublin will be moved from his emergency defender role back up front Boateng returns from Dutch Under-21 duty and Telfer is back from suspension. Strachan may be reluctant to make sweeping changes from the team which won at 2-1 at The Dell in midweek.

Barnsley manager Danny Wilson has defensive problems. Arjan de Zeeuw (groin) and Ales Krizan (knee) are doubtful starters and Chris Morgan and Darren Barnard are suspended. Peter Markstedt is likely to be given his first start for five weeks and Scott Jones is added to the squad. Striker Jan-Age Fjortoft should replace John Hendrie up front after being cup-tied, although the Scot is also struggling with a calf strain. Wilson, meanwhile, is currently involved in talks with four players - De Zeeuw, Jovo Bosancic, Clint Marcelle and Neil Thompson - who are all out of contract at the end of the season.

Leicester v Chelsea

Marshall 8 Leading scorer Vialli 15 Last season: 1-3

Theo Zagorakis could make his full debut for Leicester today as they look to maintain the recent steady form that has seen two wins and three draws in the last five games. Zagorakis is expected to be handed a place in midfield because Garry Parker is almost certainly out with bruised ribs. The Frenchman Pegguy Arphexad continues in goal for Kasey Keller who is on international duty. Steve Walsh, recovering from a groin injury, could be on the bench after missing the last two games.

Chelsea goalkeeper Kevin Hitchcock will make his first Premiership start in a year as the Blues aim to keep up championship pressure on Manchester United. Hitchcock's last league start came against United on February 22 last year, but with Ed De Goey away on international duty he will play at Filbert Street. Player-manager Gianluca Vialli may put himself on the bench after the exertions of the midweek Coca-Cola Cup win over Arsenal, with Tore Andre Flo coming in. Eddie Newton is in contention for a place as well, while Frank Sinclair (calf) remains doubtful.

Man Utd v Derby

Cole 21 Leading scorer Wanchope 13 Last season: 2-3

Manchester United will be without Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who has failed to recover from the virus which has kept him out for two games, and Ronny Johnsen, who is ruled out by a calf strain. Alex Ferguson has otherwise a virtually full squad from which to select his team.

England midfielder Paul Scholes is available after a two-match suspension during which he had treatment on an injury picked up on international duty. The champions will be looking to build on their 2-0 midweek win over Aston Villa and recover from the poor form that had seen just one win in five games prior Wednesday.

Francesco Baiano returns to Derby's attack. The pounds 1.5m summer signing from Fiorentina was rested at Everton last Saturday. "He was looking a bit tired and I thought he needed a break," said manager Jim Smith. "The foreign players find it hard at this stage of the season because every game in this League is physically and mentally hard." Baiano replaces Ron Willems, and, with the Danish defender Jacob Laursen out for two weeks after keyhole surgery on his right knee, Gary Rowett again plays in central defence.

Sheff Wed vTottenham

Di Canio 11 Leading scorer Ginola 8 Last season: 2-1

Striker Andy Booth is Ron Atkinson's only injury doubt for today. Booth has suffered with a persistent groin strain which has kept him out of his side's last two matches, although, if passed fit, Atkinson is certain to keep faith with the Italians Paolo Di Canio and Benito Carbone up front. Midfielder Graham Hyde, meanwhile, is on the brink of a second suspension as he has picked up seven yellow cards from 16 matches and a booking tomorrow will see him given a two match ban.

Tottenham, with eight players still out injured, are also without the suspended Ramon Vega and Stephen Clemence. David Howells is back after recovering from a cracked rib and Colin Calderwood will move to his favoured defensive role in place of Vega. Gary Mabbutt will be on the bench again alongside young reserves Peter Gain and Mark Arber, who have no first team experience. Left back Clive Wilson is the latest injury victim, failing a fitness test on a calf strain yesterday and Justin Edinburgh, who substituted for him in the 1-1 draw with Leicester last week, gets his first start for six weeks.

Southampton v Blackburn

Davies 12 Leading scorer Gallacher 17 Last season: 2-0

Southampton's leading scorer Kevin Davies will not be making his comeback today. The 20-year-old striker has been struggling with an ankle injury since he limped off against Manchester United last month shortly after scoring the winning goal. Davies played against Liverpool but broke down midway through the first half and failed to recover in time to face Coventry in midweek. Saints are also without suspended centre back Ken Monkou, who begins a two-match ban, but Francis Benali returns after missing three games through suspension.

Chris Sutton is out of Blackburn's side. The striker, who has scored 16 goals this season, has failed to recover from a virus infection which has confined him to bed over the past 24 hours. Youngster James Beattie and Swedish forward Martin Dahlin will compete for his place alongside Kevin Gallacher. Dahlin, back after from injury, is most likely to step into Sutton's place. The Swiss central defender Stephane Henchoz and the Norwegian centre-back Tore Pedersen are both doubtful.

Wimbledon v Aston Villa

Euell, Cort 6 Leading scorers Yorke 9 Last season: 0-2

Jamaica striker Marcus Gayle is likely to return to Wimbledon's team against Aston Villa at Selhurst Park on Saturday after returning from international duty at the Gold Cup in America. Wimbledon will also be hoping Gayle's fellow Jamaican international, midfielder Robbie Earle, who missed the America trip, will be fit to return, while midfielder Ceri Hughes also hopes to return after a hamstring injury. Efan Ekoku may play a part following a lengthy recent lay-off with ankle ligament trouble. Wimbledon have won one Premiership game in the last five.

Aston Villa's transfer-listed striker Savo Milosevic could keep his place today. The Yugoslav international was recalled for the midweek 2-0 defeat against Manchester United in the absence of Dwight Yorke.

Yorke is one of five players trying to regain fitness as he struggles to shake off a calf strain. Midfielder Mark Draper has an ankle problem, while Steve Staunton is struggling with a hamstring strain. Gareth Southgate suffered a thigh strain against United, while midfielder Ian Taylor picked up an ankle injury.


Newcastle v Leeds

Barnes, Speed 7 Leading scorers Hasselbaink 14 Last season: 3- 0

Kenny Dalglish is only without long-term injury victim Steve Watson. Dalglish admits his side deserved to lose 4-1 at Elland Road in October - but he is confident his side can turn the tables on the Yorkshiremen at St James' Park this weekend. Both Andreas Andersson and full-back Andy Griffin are both available after missing last Saturday's Cup tie with Tranmere - the Swede was injured, while the former Stoke defender was Cup-tied. Newcastle need a win to have any chance of moving back into the top half the table, while their visitors need a win to maintain their challenge for a place in Europe.

Leeds midfielder David Hopkin returns to captain the side for tomorrow's game after pulling out of last week's FA Cup fifth round home win over Birmingham due to a family bereavement. Hopkin will take the place of Lee Bowyer, who starts a two-match suspension for an accumulation of bookings, while Mark Jackson completes a two-game ban. Defender Robert Molenaar is again doubtful with a knee injury, while David Robertson (knee) and Derek Lilley (hernia) are both out for the next few weeks following surgery.