Football: Pursuit of the champions keeps challengers on edge

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The Independent Online
The season of the six-pointer is upon us and Liverpool and Blackburn will play one out at Anfield today, fearing that defeat will push them too far behind Manchester United. Guy Hodgson looks at that and other Premiership fixtures this weekend while Nick Harris (below) analyses the programme match by match

After a game of lasting images at Anfield on Tuesday, two more lingered as the ground emptied. The first was that Roy Hodgson had forsaken the scouting manager's habit of leaving 20 minutes before the end. The other was of supporters asking him for his autograph.

A pulled leg muscle made it impossible for the Blackburn Rovers manager to bend over two rows of seats, so the home supporters, happy at watching their team take a 2-1 Coca-Cola Cup semi-final lead over Middlesbrough, had to contort and then stretch again. There in front of us was a metaphor for the season: Liverpool straining to keep in touch with Hodgson.

The two teams meet at Anfield today in a match that will have the winners preening themselves as the principal challengers to Manchester United and the losers muttering: "There's a long way to go yet." Defeat would be felt more keenly, you suspect, by Liverpool.

Despite a run of six wins and a draw in seven matches, another reverse would make it four League lapses at home this season and, with only six more Premiership games at Anfield, it would require form on their travels that has been unprecedented this season for them to catch the champions. Little wonder Roy Evans' theme tune at the moment is: "We will keep plugging away and hoping".

Hodgson, whose willingness to go the full 90 on Tuesday was typical of his thoroughness, has had his ambition fortified by two games in which eight goals have been scored and none conceded. A few weeks ago he was suggesting Blackburn were unlikely to catch United. Now, just five points behind, the message is different.

"We've got 15 games left," he said, "and if the team is capable of repeating the performances against Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday then we've got to believe we'll be close at the end."

Alex Ferguson no doubt feels they are close enough already, and would be delighted if Blackburn could force the first draw of the season at Anfield to give United a chance of being seven points ahead by tonight. That, of course, is dependent on his side disposing of Leicester, which is no foregone conclusion.

"They are always hard to break down," Ferguson said. "Last year we had to wait until 15 minutes from time before scoring. We won 3-1 but I believe we'll again have to be patient." United have been held to successive draws by Leicester and were knocked out of the Coca-Cola Cup by them last season so the return to fitness of Teddy Sheringham could hardly be more timely.

His return will be of the minor key, however, compared to the receptions that will greet Everton's Slaven Bilic at West Ham and Crystal Palace's Tomas Brolin at Leeds. Some players are greeted warmly by their former supporters and so will they - as in red-hot vitriol.

West Ham still hurl abuse at Paul Ince and he left Upton Park for Old Trafford nine years ago, so the more recent wound opened by Bilic's pounds 4.5m move to Everton in the summer is likely to provoke more mock outrage from supporters who would not think twice about moving to new employers for greatly improved wages.

John Hartson defended his erstwhile colleague yesterday, saying: "To be fair, Slaven could have gone well before the end of the season. Surely he deserves some credit for opting to stay on and help ensure we stayed in the Premiership." He does, but sadly the plea is trying to prise reason into closed minds.

Leeds fans have a more legitimate reason to dislike Brolin, whose attitude once he fell out with Howard Wilkinson was markedly less than cordial. Ian Dobson, the editor of the fanzine The Square Ball, put it into perspective this week when he said: "There was obviously a clash of character with Wilkinson, but when George Graham came he said the slate was clean and still Brolin did nothing to heal the rift."

That leaves only one question. Will Brolin, who cost Leeds a fortune in fees and wages and did virtually nothing for the club, be treated worse by Elland Road than Eric Cantona, who helped win a championship but who committed the unpardonable sin of being hugely successful after being transferred to Manchester United? The smart money is on better.

Arsenal and Derby, fifth and sixth, will hope to make the most of any damage Blackburn and Liverpool inflict on each other at home to the strugglers Southampton and Tottenham respectively, while Chelsea, who have lost four of their last five matches, will shorten their sights to a Uefa Cup place rather than the championship if they fail to beat Barnsley at Stamford Bridge. At Oakwell in August the score was 6-0 in the Londoners' favour.

Bolton and Coventry, one and three points above bottom-placed Barnsley, meet at the Reebok Stadium which, for all its splendid fittings, has witnessed more prosaic fare on the pitch, with only 16 goals. As the visitors have only got four on their travels and Bolton nine at home, anything more than a 0-0 draw will be a bonus.