Football: Rivals in dogfight for the right to chase United

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The Independent Online
Four of the Premiership's top five meet today in a programme that will help define who are best suited to challenge Manchester United. Guy Hodgson looks at the weekend ahead, while Nick Harris (below) analyses the programme match by match.

There are good times and bad times to have the weekend off. Sometimes a team can endure their rivals creeping up or past them while they idle away the hours at Sky's behest; today Manchester United can watch their main rivals inflict damage on each other.

While United do not play Aston Villa until Monday night, the four teams immediately behind them meet today, knocking lumps and points off each other. Second-placed Chelsea meet Leeds (fifth) while Blackburn (third) travel to Arsenal (fourth), with all four aware they cannot afford to give the champions a further advantage.

That was underlined last week. Arsenal defeated Newcastle at St James' Park last Saturday almost to the day when they prevailed on Tyneside to go top of the Premiership 12 months earlier. United, embroiled in the Champions' League, were only sixth on that occasion and still went on to win the League by seven points. The fact that they are top at this stage of the season is ominous.

Chelsea are nearest to their coat-tails, three points behind, which is a tribute to Ruud Gullit's management of a team whose key players are either approaching the footballing watershed of 30 or have long since waved it goodbye. Only he will know who is playing today. The rest of us do not have a clue.

"They have some excellent players," said Gunnar Halle, the Leeds defender who will attempt to halt an attack which scored six at Tottenham last week. "But the way Ruud Gullit picks his side even my Norwegian team-mate, Tor Andre Flo, who got a hat-trick, can't be sure of playing."

It does not make it easy for opposing managers, either, when they may have to counter the air force of the 6ft 2in Flo or the groundswell of the 5ft 6in Gianfranco Zola. Throw in the contrasting styles of Mark Hughes and Gianluca Vialli and the opposition need centre-backs who can adapt over and again. "It's the kind of game you look forward to as a coach," George Graham said, "pitting your wits against some of the best players in the Premiership."

Chelsea have lost only once since 26 October, a spell in which Leeds have accumulated four wins and a draw. They are the two form teams and the only clubs to have matched Old Trafford's greed for points.

Only Arsenal have beaten United since then, a win which was squandered by successive defeats. As ever, suspensions cloud Arsene Wenger's calculations for the visit of Blackburn and he has to decide whether to risk the fit- again Patrick Vieira, who is just a booking away from missing a Christmas programme which includes Tottenham and Leeds. At least Steve Bould has served his three-match ban.

Of course, if Tottenham play like they did in the second half against Chelsea you could put out your youth team and get a favourable result, and their new coach, Christian Gross, may be forced to use Sol Campbell at Coventry, even though his shoulder still hurts him.

"I want to do what I can for the club in this difficult time," the England defender said. Now if all Spurs' highly paid players could say the same they would not be three points of the bottom of the table.

Everton, like Tottenham, are a club of ifs and many buts, and another loomed on Monday evening: if only Everton's defence could deal with attacks as adroitly as their chairman. Peter Johnson's masterly manipulation of events at the club's annual meeting left his critics frustrated. Now the hard part comes: being similarly proficient on the field.

Everton, second bottom, have gained two points from their last seven matches since beating Liverpool in October, and as their manager, Howard Kendall, said to fans on Monday: "We know you deserve better." They can begin to put that right against Wimbledon today.

The are due a bounce-back as Neil Ardley, Wimbledon's midfielder conceded. "We cannot go to Goodison with the attitude they are bottom," he said, "because teams like that are fighting for their lives. They have been unlucky recently."

So have Barnsley, who could have been four points better off from their matches against Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday but finished with none. It appears that the effort required just to match teams in the Premiership leaves them flagging after an hour, and opponents take advantage. At least Danny Wilson's team are facing Newcastle United, who have failed to score in their last two Premiership matches.

Ron Atkinson's Wednesday revival faces its stiffest test to date with an appointment with the Premiership's leading scorer, West Ham's John Hartson, while Southampton (four successive defeats) and Leicester (one win in five matches) will desire points for differing reasons at The Dell.

If anxiety is your drug, however, the best venue could be Selhurst Park, where Liverpool's dwindling credibility as title challengers badly needs a lift. Another defeat and the natives, already restless, will be positively hostile by next weekend, when the team meets their bete noire of recent seasons, Coventry.

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