Football: Fate and fixtures conspire for Cup dry run

As the season nears its flashpoint, Phil Shaw reports on the quest for points at both ends of the table, while Nick Harris (below) offers a match-by-match analysis
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The Independent Online
FATE and the fixture computer often conspire to match the FA Cup finalists on the League stage before their Wembley confrontation. What makes today's meeting of Arsenal and Newcastle unusual is that the dress rehearsal has much more riding on it than the big production.

Both clubs are desperate for the points. Arsenal, one defeat in 23 games, because they need to maintain the pressure on Manchester United in the race for the Premiership title; Newcastle, two wins in 18, to stave off a schedule on which Bury and Port Vale replace Barcelona and PSV.

Occupying the runners-up spot Newcastle have taken for the past two years, Arsenal are embarking on a programme of eight "cup finals" in 30 days. Their success or otherwise will dictate whether they step out on 16 May with the Double still on Arsene Wenger's agenda.

Gruelling as that itinerary is, especially with Martin Keown joining a distinguished list of absentees, Arsenal's run-in is not as physically taxing as United's last spring. Remember how Alex Ferguson, forced to play four vital games in nine days, sought an extension to the season? Wenger called his request "ridiculous" and suggested that managers liaise with the FA to avoid a repetition.

Feud for thought, it seemed, yet nothing has changed and now the boot is on the other foot. The champions have an almost leisurely four matches left, whereas the challengers move on to an Easter Monday battle at Blackburn, who gave United a tougher time than a 3-1 setback suggested in midweek and were the last team to beat Arsenal back in December.

Today's collision of Tony Adams and Alan Shearer, England captains past and present, promises to be both bone-juddering and decisive. Adams is emerging as a strong contender for the Footballer of the Year award, but in the meantime Arsenal won a double of a less momentous kind yesterday.

An unbeaten record during March made Wenger an irresistible choice as Carling Manager of the Month, Highbury's first since George Graham exactly five years ago. The panel, which included Glenn Hoddle, also named the reserve goalkeeper, Austria's Alex Manninger, as Player of the Month for his part in Arsenal's mounting pile of clean sheets.

Newcastle's nadir came when Crystal Palace left with a rare victory at the height of the "Toongate" scandal. Palace were unable to build on that success and will surely be doomed unless they defeat Leicester. While the failure to win a Premiership home game scarcely encourages optimism, they did thump Martin O'Neill's side 3-0 at Selhurst Park in the FA Cup.

The clubs Palace accompanied out of the First Division, Barnsley and Bolton, have eminently winnable home derbies. After four dismissals which will cost them key personnel when they can least afford it, Danny Wilson's side need to temper passion with poise in another volatile atmosphere against Sheffield Wednesday, whom, it is rumoured, Wilson could soon be managing.

At the Reebok Stadium, home of the red card, Bolton must also find a balance of head and heart against Blackburn. The visitors' decline has left them in danger of missing out on the European place which appeared a formality. Roy Hodgson's defence was shipping goals even before Tim Flowers was indisposed, but Bolton, for whom Dean Holdsworth has been an expensive flop, average less than one goal a game.

The Nationwide League would naturally prefer to see Newcastle, Tottenham and Everton drop. Spurs must break the mould against Chelsea, having failed to win any of their last 11 encounters and lost 6-1 at home to them. Gianluca Vialli promises a full-strength line-up as he gears up for the Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final against Vicenza, but ending the sloppiness which was costly at Leeds on Wednesday could prove difficult.

Leeds' focused approach and counter-attacking style make them less than ideal opponents for Everton at Goodison Park. George Graham's team have been on song for Europe, winning five out of six either side of their Stansted scare. In Jimmy Hasselbaink, who has now scored as many League goals (13) as John Hartson or Andy Cole, they also possess the Premiership's in-form striker.

Traditionally, Leeds and Everton fare poorly on each other's ground, although the former's away record is bettered only by the top two. Much may depend on whether Duncan Ferguson can establish aerial ascendancy over David Wetherall, not to mention Uriah Rennie's ability to control the division's two most-booked teams.

When the curtain comes down shortly before five o'clock, Howard Kendall can start planning for a six-pointer at Wimbledon 48 hours later. Since Newcastle go straight from London to a similar showdown with Barnsley, it should be possible by Monday night to distinguish the clubs involved in a drama from those caught in a crisis.

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