Football: Ferguson prepared for Elland Road examination

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The Independent Online
Following a tetchy week in the Premiership, Phil Shaw considers the potential for further controversy in this weekend's action, while Nick Harris (below) analyses the programme match by match.

After a week of malice and mayhem in the Premiership, with so many players taking an eye for an eye that Old Trafford resembled the Old Testament, the potential for further confrontation and controversy in the weekend programme is all too evident.

Hostilities commenced at Bolton last Saturday, when Nathan Blake's sly assault provoked Gary Pallister into a fracas, if not the raised fists the referee thought he saw. They continued 24 hours later at Stamford Bridge, where the southern softies of Chelsea and Arsenal, not to mention a clutch of fancy-dan foreigners, did their worst to confound a few stereotypes.

If it was not a shock to find Roy Keane and Dennis Wise at the centre of a Mancunian maelstrom in midweek, it was more surprising that their fellow antagonists included several who set great store by the belief that football is not a matter of life or death. Step forward Graeme Le Saux and Ruud Gullit, to name but two.

The same night, proving that pressure and aggression are not exclusive to the putative title contenders - or even to members of opposing teams - Sheffield Wednesday's David Hirst and Benito Carbone staged a fall-out worthy of the Anglo-Italian Cup during their drubbing by Derby.

In the wake of his team's recent rugged encounters, Alex Ferguson would probably not have picked a trip to Leeds for United's final match before the Champions' League tussle with Juventus. Although they won the corresponding fixture 4-0 en route to Turin a year ago, the urgings of supporters who have an almost primordial disdain for United is sure to create a volatile atmosphere.

Ferguson once called Elland Road "the most intimidating venue in Europe". These days it holds few fears, Leeds having won just three games there in 1997 and scored only four times in 12 attempts since opening the year with a 3-0 defeat of Leicester. With Peter Schmeichel yet to concede an away goal, and Keane and Nicky Butt unlikely to be bullied out of their stride, everything points to more frustration for Graham.

However, Ryan Giggs is still troubled by a hamstring injury, and may be missing both today and on Wednesday.

Arsenal's continuing combustibility under the urbane leadership of Arsene Wenger is one of the game's great paradoxes, even if it was a trifle rich for Chelsea's Franck Leboeuf to castigate them as the country's dirtiest side.

The Premiership table shows that Arsenal are currently its best team, a status they ought to have cemented by beating Tottenham and Leicester in draws they dominated. While those glimpses of fallibility offer hope to Everton, who are already digging in for a hard winter, Dennis Bergkamp's irresistible form suggests a torrid afternoon for a Goodison Park crowd restless with their club's inability to attract players of comparable quality.

Impressive as they were against Keane and company, Chelsea's championship credentials have taken a knock in terms of points. Following on from Arsenal and United, their mini-Champions' League itinerary now pits them against Newcastle, with Liverpool at Anfield to come a week tomorrow.

Newcastle's 1-1 draw at the Bridge last season, in what became Kevin Keegan's last foray to the patch he now seeks to command, featured an elbow-for-a-tooth feud between Mark Hughes and David Batty which resulted in the Yorkshireman's expulsion.

This time, with a trek to Kiev imminent, Kenny Dalglish may turn to Hughes' old oppo with Wales, Ian Rush, to take the strain off the recently-unwell Faustino Asprilla. Chelsea's free-scoring habits should offer the most searching examination so far of Shay Given's saving grace.

West Ham came to grief against Given a week ago, and had their early optimism comprehensively punctured at Highbury. Still, there is nothing like the return of Paul Ince to fire up the Upton Park patrons. The Liverpool captain, never forgiven for the tactless handling of his defection from the Hammers to Manchester United, has recovered from the injury which kept him out of Monday's win over Aston Villa.

The meeting of Villa and Sheffield Wednesday may find two Anfield old boys, Stan Collymore and Bruce Grobbelaar, in opposition with something to prove. Collymore has scored once since his pounds 7m switch, a rate which has had Villa fans reappraising Savo Milosevic.

Grobbelaar's last Premiership outing was 18 months ago for Southampton, who may step out at Derby propping up the division, but this week showed an encouraging ability to change perceptions which appear to be cast in concrete. With so many winners turning out to be sinners, what better time to make Carlton Palmer a Saint.

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