Football: Self-styled elite obliged to justify their grand claims

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The Independent Online
Phil Shaw looks at a weekend of Premiership action that presents the Big Five with vastly differing challenges, while Nick Harris (below) analyses the programme match by match.

Five years after they helped to form the Big Five and became prime movers in setting up the Premiership, the powers of Merseyside and north London tangle this weekend. Portentous as the games at Goodison Park and Highbury may prove, a home victory at Old Trafford would strengthen the suspicion that Manchester United are now in a league of their own: the Big One.

By virtually any criterion - resources, revenue, squad depth, silverware, support - United have left their rivals standing. The only area in which their pre-eminence is not currently pronounced is points. A lead of one offers second-placed Blackburn Rovers the opportunity to take over at the top by beating them tomorrow.

Unfortunately for all who prefer a race to a procession, Alex Ferguson's team give the impression of being ready to accelerate away now their place in the Champions' League quarter-finals is secure. Even when amassing 26 goals in six games, United have seemed to be holding something in reserve.

Blackburn, in contrast, were stretched to the limit in scraping past Everton and Chelsea, and will need to scale new heights just to stay with the champions. They have not won at United for 35 years and boast a solitary, Alan Shearer-inspired success in the 17 ensuing encounters.

They have, however, run them sufficiently close in this fixture (two draws, two 1-0 defeats in the last four) to encourage optimism. What is more, Tim Flowers is playing better than any keeper in the country, and Chris Sutton is in the kind of form that could exploit Gary Pallister's increasing vulnerability.

But even allowing for the tactical nous of Roy Hodgson, who is arguably outstripping Arsene Wenger as the most astute coach to come to England from abroad, it may not be enough. Hodgson is taking only his 16th Premiership match, against a mere 443 for Ferguson, and is likely to be left to reflect on the afternoon as part of his learning curve.

No such luxuries for Howard Kendall. Before Everton overcame Liverpool, he said the derby was "the easy one - what happens afterwards is the key". What has happened is a sequence of defeats which mean they receive Tottenham as the bottom club.

Everton's incentive is not unlike Blackburn's. By seeing off Spurs they could trade places with them, and on Christian Gross' debut as manager to boot. The Swiss showed a historical bent when he flourished names like Harry Hotspur and the Earl of Northumberland, yet he may be unaware of positive auguries from the more recent past.

In the autumn of 1958, Bill Nicholson took charge of an ailing Spurs for the first time... against Everton. They triumphed by no less than 10- 4 and within three years the Double came to White Hart Lane. Peter Shreeves also launched his reign with an astounding victory over Everton, 4-1 away on the first day of 1984-85, even if it was Kendall who won the title.

The way Everton's season has gone, survival would represent success for a club whose badge decrees that nothing but the best is good enough. Anything less than three points may provoke protests against the chairman, Peter Johnson, who dug himself into a deeper hole with ill-judged criticism of supporters this week.

By their neighbours' standards, Liverpool are hardly in crisis. But Anfield compares itself with Old Trafford; humiliation by Barnsley left them nine points adrift, effectively turning tomorrow's match at Arsenal and the visit of United a week today into 180 minutes which could make or break both their season and Roy Evans' managerial tenure.

Arsenal, having sandwiched a fortuitous win over United between surrenders at Derby and Sheffield, also face a test of their resilience. Dennis Bergkamp's return could be the spark they need - Ian Wright looked forlorn without him - whereas Liverpool have Robbie Fowler and Paul Ince suspended when they need them most.

While the financial clout of Chelsea and Newcastle would conceivably put them in an updated Big Five, only by winning the big one, the championship, would their membership look anything more than transitory. Chelsea, who take on Derby in a match likely to have a strong Italian influence, crept into third place in midweek, but with five defeats already can afford to lose three more at most to have any hope of finishing top.

Newcastle's could move to within a point of the leaders if they won their games in hand. Their prospects of doing so might be brighter if Kenny Dalglish, knowing he had lost Alan Shearer, had not hastily offloaded Les Ferdinand and Peter Beardsley.

Crystal Palace's failure to win at home since April offers Newcastle hope on their retreat from Catalonia. Nevertheless, to study Palace's away record, which is comfortably the best in the Premiership, is to be reassured in this era of self-proclaimed elites that small can still be bountiful.