Football: France the target for goal-hunters Fowler and Cole

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The Independent Online
Unpredictable Liverpool could surprise us all by getting the better of Manchester United today in a game that also gives rival England strikers the chance to show their World Cup worth.

As the spotlight swings from Marseilles to Merseyside, from a spectacle that engaged an entire planet to the parochial business of Premiership success and survival, both Liverpool and Everton have the world to play for.

In their last home fixture, Liverpool lost humiliatingly to the bottom club, Barnsley. In the next, this morning, they confront Manchester United. It speaks volumes for their baffling inconsistency and exceptional capabilities that no one will be unduly surprised if they defeat the champions.

Roy Evans' prospects of continuing as Liverpool manager did not look auspicious after the Barnsley debacle. Before United there was the small matter of a trip to Arsenal. Highbury presented their problems and potential in microcosm: Steve McManaman, languid for most of the match, suddenly stirred himself to win the match with a virtuoso goal.

United realise better than most the folly of characterising any game as crucial or decisive before the season has even reached the half-way stage. Alex Ferguson was no more triumphalist after Sunday's rout of Blackburn than he was panicked by defeat at Arsenal last month.

That said, the match could make or break Liverpool's chances of featuring in the title race. They are currently nine points off the pace with a game in hand. A 12-point deficit would present psychological as well as practical difficulties, especially now that United are all but free to concentrate on defending the title.

Suspension and injury have spared squeamish spectators the sight of Paul Ince and Roy Keane going head to head, but the match will provide a fascinating comparison between two strikers who may be competing for one place in England's World Cup squad for France .

Robbie Fowler returns for Liverpool, almost certainly to link up with Michael Owen in a bid to expose Gary Pallister's susceptibility to pace. Andy Cole will be striving to show that his glut of goals for United against Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday can be maintained against Evans' rather quicker defenders. With a 7ft 6in bronze cast of Bill Shankly newly unveiled at Anfield, it could be a bad day for centre-backs to look statuesque.

How Everton would love to be in a position where being cast adrift referred to the leadership rather than last place. After another week in which their chairman, Peter Johnson, failed to clarify the position regarding what funds, if any, are available to Howard Kendall, they travel to Leeds seeking to end two desperate sequences.

It is a year next week since Everton beat Derby at the Baseball Ground with a last-minute goal, their last away win in 20 games. Worse still, their record at Elland Road shows not a single success in 32 League visits stretching back to 1951.

A sixth successive Premiership defeat would leave Everton needing to win half their remaining matches to stay up. Leeds, in contrast, have won four in a row for the first time since April 1995 when, coincidentally, Howard Wilkinson was named Carling Manager of the Month as George Graham was yesterday.

Man for man, Everton's line-up does not look conspicuously inferior to Leeds'; the difference is that Graham has instilled a spirit which has helped the Yorkshire side come from behind in the last three victories. Whatever happens today, Johnson is assured of a rough ride at Goodison's annual meeting on Monday.

Chelsea's pursuit of Manchester United collides head-on with Tottenham's need to put clear water between themselves and the relegation zone. Precedent does not augur well for Christian Gross in his first home game in charge of Spurs. Chelsea have won five and lost none in eight meetings at White Hart Lane dating back a decade.

Arsenal's championship hopes are in danger of becoming history unless they snap out of a six-match run without a win. The trek to Newcastle, who may have Faustino Asprilla back as they try to cling on the leaders' coat-tails themselves, will have given them time to reflect on the resilience which won the day at St James' Park a year ago. Arsene Wenger's team played all but 22 minutes without the sent-off Tony Adams, yet still prevailed with an Ian Wright goal.

John Hartson's scoring spree, coinciding with six barren outings for Wright, has prompted once-unthinkable doubts about Wenger's wisdom in selling the Welshman to West Ham. However, only three of Hartson's 17 goals have come away from Upton Park, mirroring his side's return of just one point out of 21 on the road. Derby's unbeaten start at Pride Park suggests they may struggle to break the spell.

But if Everton, Spurs and West Ham feel they are labouring against the odds, spare a thought for Coventry. Already in their customary lowly position, and lacking the injured Gary McAllister, they make the short hop to Aston Villa knowing they have never won there, despite 23 attempts spread over 60 years.