Football: United in no mood to show strugglers any mercy

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If they can score five goals at Stamford Bridge what will Manchester United do to Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford? Guy Hodgson looks at that game and other leading Premiership fixtures this weekend while below, Rob McLean assesses the programme match by match.

If you wanted to mark the decline in Tottenham Hotspur, their wheeling and dealing this week would do as well as anything. Thirty years ago tomorrow Spurs broke the British transfer record when they paid Southampton pounds 125,000 for Martin Chivers. Now a really big money move is more likely to break the club.

Like the team, there was a frenzy of activity but at the end there was little to show for it. Just a loan signing, the Italian Nicola Berti, which for a club which likes to think of itself as among the elite was a minimal response to the predicament of being second bottom of the Premiership.

They will sample the big time today but only as well-off tourists in a National Trust property. Not so long ago Manchester United versus Tottenham was a meeting of giants but if the visitors win at Old Trafford the reaction will be akin to a Cup upset.

Maybe if United had not been caught against Coventry a fortnight ago, Tottenham might have found the champions in an over-confident and over- indulgent mood but the players' ears are still ringing from Alex Ferguson's eruption at Highfield Road.

"We like to make things difficult for ourselves," the United manager says repeatedly, although, at five points clear at the top of the Premiership, there are degrees of difficulty. "We need to make sure there are no more slip-ups." The home side have scored 30 times in 10 home League matches while Tottenham have conceded 22 on their travels so the only thing likely to be on the slide is Spurs.

While Tottenham go north in trepidation, George Graham will travel in the opposite direction eager to meet his old club, Arsenal. He was sacked in 1995 because of his role in the "transfer bungs" affair and it is only now that he feels he can return with a Leeds side that can compete as equals.

"I'm always happy to go to Highbury and I'm looking forward to it again this time, perhaps more than ever," Graham said. "I'm comfortable about it because of the progress we have made in the last year or so.

"The last two times I've been back it wasn't really my own team. We were taken apart on the first occasion and on the second, a few months later in the FA Cup, we won with a very solid performance but really we were way behind Arsenal last season."

Not that Leeds have a promising record. They have won just once in the League in their last nine visits and arrive at Arsenal just as Ian Wright has rediscovered what the pieces of white metal at each end of the pitch are for. He scored against West Ham in the Coca-Cola Cup in midweek, only his second goal in three months.

Third-placed Chelsea have had a slump recently, too, and entertain Coventry having been dismembered by Manchester United last Sunday. That 5-3 rout followed a defeat at Southampton which makes the present a particularly inopportune time for a flu virus to attack the squad.

Usually only Ruud Gullit knows what the team is going to be but today even the Chelsea manager might be perplexed as at least five players have been laid low. Coventry, meanwhile, arrive at Stamford Bridge in rude health after successive wins over United and Liverpool.

Everton have a new striker, the French international Mickael Madar, to look forward to. Whether he will get on against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park is debatable but at least the manager, Howard Kendall, has options up front which is something he has been bereft of this season.

Liverpool, whose Steve McManaman was named the player of the month for December yesterday, encounter another of their ghosts of lapses past in Wimbledon. The Dons have lost on one of their last seven visits but arrive with the albatross of one win in their last seven matches. As ever at Anfield the outcome is wholly unpredictable.

John Prescott, the deputy Prime Minister, will officially open Bolton's Reebok Stadium today and then Colin Todd hopes his defence will lock out Southampton. Wanderers have been conceding goals at the rate of two a game since their last win, against Newcastle on 1 December, an act of generosity which has seen them sink to just above the relegation places.

Newcastle, too, are beginning to look anxiously in that direction. Their shortcomings in front of goal have left them with one win in nine games and they are just six points away from the bottom three. Sheffield Wednesday, another team in a worrying run, will draw level if they beat them at Hillsborough today.

Barnsley, the bottom club, last won at West Ham in September 1919 and as they have scored a mere eight times away from home the chances of them ending the sequence are not favourable.

Blackburn, with 13, have been less than prolific either but only Wimbledon have conceded fewer on their travels so a tight match can be anticipated at Derby, who are unbeaten at home, tomorrow.

Bergkamp 12 Leading scorer Wallace 10

Last season: 3-0

Arsenal v Leeds

Arsenal will be hoping that their midweek Coca-Cola Cup success at West Ham, will mean an improvement in their League form. Ian Wright, who returned from suspension to make a scoring return at Upton Park, will lead the attack against a Leeds side managed by former Highbury manager George Graham. But England midfielder David Platt is still out with a groin injury and although full-back Lee Dixon returns to the squad after recovering from a similar problem, Wenger is likely to remain loyal to fellow Frenchman Gilles Grimandi. Graham, who is unbeaten in his last three games against Arsenal, still sees Wright as the major threat: "Some people have criticised Ian recently, but he is still one of the game's lethal finishers,'' Graham said.

Leeds' captain David Hopkin and Norwegian international midfielder Alf Inge Haland may have to be content with a place on the bench again as both were substitutes in last week's FA Cup tie at home to Oxford. Defender David Robertson, completes a two-match ban.

Aston Villa v Leicester

Yorke, Taylor 6 Leading scorer Marshall 8 Last season: 1-3

Leicester manager Martin O'Neill is optimistic that Ian Marshall and Steve Walsh will be fit. Striker Marshall should be given the all- clear from a groin injury while Walsh expects to return from a hamstring strain. If Marshall is ruled out, Tony Cottee, the former West Ham and Everton striker, could come into the side after scoring as substitute in the FA Cup victory over Northampton last Saturday. O'Neill will be looking for his striker Emile Heskey to rediscover his goalscoring touch. Heskey, who celebrates his 20th birthday tomorrow and is trying to win a place in Glenn Hoddle's World Cup squad this year, has scored only once in the last 15 matches for the Foxes.

Riccardo Scimeca returns for Villa with England defender Gareth Southgate suffering with a twisted ankle. Julian Joachim, stands by to play against his former club, replacing Stan Collymore, who he came on for in the 2- 2 FA Cup third round draw at Portsmouth last Saturday.

Bolton v Southampton

Blake 9 Leading scorer Davies 11

Last season: No corresponding fixture

Bob Taylor, the former Leeds striker on loan with Bolton from West Brom, may be given his chance to boost Colin Todd's attack at the Reebok Stadium. Taylor will come into the team if Dean Holdsworth, who has been out for a month with a knee and shin injury, does not recover in time. Bolton's goalkeeper Keith Branagan is now fully fit again after missing five matches with a groin injury and looks set to take over from Gavin Ward. Todd is still waiting to see if another former Leeds player, Mike Whitlow, will be fit. The defender was taken off on a stretcher against Barnsley with a knee injury but X-rays revealed no major damage, although his chances of being fit in time are slim.

Southampton's Neil Moss is on standby to replace Wales international keeper Paul Jones, who is doubtful with a groin injury. Carlton Palmer, the club's signing from Leeds, will continue in defence if Norwegian Claus Lundekvam fails to recover from a calf injury.

Chelsea v Coventry

Vialli 14 Leading scorer Dublin 10

Last season: 2-0

Ruud Gullit will hold a Stamford Bridge roll-call today before deciding who is fit to take on Coventry. The Chelsea camp have been hit by a flu bug which meant Romanian Dan Petrescu and Gianluca Vialli were forced out of Wednesday's Coca-Cola Cup trip to Ipswich. Petrescu was again told to stay at home yesterday and with Roberto Di Matteo and youngster Nick Crittenden - and Gullit himself - still struggling, along with Gianfranco Zola and Frank Leboeuf, the team is uncertain. Frank Sinclair is ruled out through suspension while Andy Myers damaged a hamstring on Wednesday and is also out of contention.

Coventry manager Gordon Strachan will leave it until the last moment to decide whether Romanian World Cup striker Viorel Moldovan, who he signed for pounds 3.25m from Swiss club Grasshoppers, is ready to make his Premiership debut. Strachan will be without the suspended Marcus Hall and George Boateng while John Salako could return after three months out with a hamstring injury. Roland Nilsson is back after flu.

Crystal Palace v Everton

Shipperley 6 Leading scorer Speed 6

Last season: No corresponding fixture

Crystal Palace's injury crisis could mean an immediate debut for 19-year-old striker Marcus Bent following his transfer from Brentford. Palace's attempt to sign Tommy Johnson on loan from Celtic has run into trouble because of a failure to reach agreement over the length of the deal. Paul Warhurst is likely to be out for six weeks because of a stress fracture and Attilio Lombardo and Michele Padovano, who have been training with Palace this week after injuries, are unlikely to feature today. Neil Shipperley (groin) is also likely to miss out, but Bruce Dyer (ankle) is expected to play. Jamie Smith is also likely to play despite an ankle problem.

Everton will have their new French international striker Mickael Madar in the side, with Danny Cadamarteri likely to drop out. Slaven Bilic returns after a five-match ban, while Gary Speed is back after an ankle injury and a week of transfer speculation. Craig Short also returns after injury. Terry Phelan, the likely replacement for the injured Andy Hinchcliffe, is back after a knee operation.

Liverpool v Wimbledon

Fowler 12 Leading scorer Cort 6

Last season: 1-1

After the Coca-Cola Cup victory at Newcastle, Liverpool are likely to be unchanged. It means that the Norwegians Bjorn Tore Kvarme and Stig Bjornebye are left out, while Brad Friedel will spend his fifth game on the bench following David James' excellent form - perhaps inspired by the American's arrival. Liverpool will be looking to lift the jinx - which started with the 1988 FA Cup final defeat- that Wimbledon have over them. Wimbledon have lost just once in their last seven games at Anfield. By beating the Merseysiders at the end of last season, Wimbledon finally ended the title hopes of Roy Evans' team.

With Efan Ekoku, Jon Goodman and Jason Euell sidelined by injury and Marcus Gayle nursing a hamstring injury, Wimbledon are set to give a debut to Carl Leaburn, their new pounds 300,000 signing from Charlton. Wimbledon will also be without Ben Thatcher, their England Under-21 international defender, who will be missing for a month because of an ankle injury.

Man Utd v Tottenham

Cole 18 Leading scorer Ginola 7

Last season: 2-0

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has shrugged off a chest cold to take his place in the Manchester United squad. However, the Norwegian will have to settle for a place among the substitutes if Alex Ferguson sticks with the side which humiliated Chelsea last Sunday. United will be without Phil Neville, who will be serving the second game of a two-match ban. The champions and Premiership leaders have no injury worries apart from the longer-term absentees Jordi Cruyff, David May and Roy Keane.

Tottenham's new signing from Internazionale, Nicola Berti, will make his debut at Old Trafford, but goalkeeper Ian Walker and David Ginola have both been ruled out with injuries sustained in the 3-1 FA Cup win against Fulham on Monday. Walker's absence gives the Norwegian Under-21 goalkeeper Espen Baardsen his second senior start while Ginola's place goes to winger Ruel Fox, who has shaken off a hamstring problem. Jurgen Klinsmann will again play a lone-role up front.

Sheff Wed v Newcastle

Di Canio 9 Leading scorer Barnes, Asprilla 6

Last season: 1-1

Sheffield Wednesday striker Guy Whittingham faces a late fitness test after picking up a knock in a midweek reserve game although, if fit, he is unlikely to start. His manager Ron Atkinson played three up front - Benito Carbone, Paolo Di Canio and Andy Booth - in last week's FA Cup third-round draw at Watford and with Carbone inspirational could keep faith with the same formation.

Faustino Asprilla, Newcastle's Colombian striker, is almost certainly out because of a thigh injury suffered in the FA Cup victory over Everton last Sunday. The Colombian failed to get on the team coach as they set off for their overnight base in Sheffield yesterday, but manager Kenny Dalglish refused to rule out the former Parma player. Defender Warren Barton is available once again after recovering from a leg injury while winger Keith Gillespie and the England defender Stuart Pearce, who both missed the midweek Coca-Cola Cup defeat by Liverpool, are also travelling.

West Ham v Barnsley

Hartson 18 Leading scorer Redfearn 8

Last season: No corresponding fixture

West Ham will be without striker Paul Kitson after he limped out of the midweek Coca-Cola Cup defeat by Arsenal with a groin strain. Samassi Abou is likely to partner John Hartson up front, while midfielders Ian Bishop and John Moncur are both fit again and available for selection. Steve Lomas will miss out as he serves the last game of a three-match ban, while Steve Potts could stand down. Tim Breacker is still ruled out with an ankle injury, but fellow defender Ian Pearce has recovered from a hamstring injury which forced him to be substituted against Arsenal. Youngster Lee Hodges, yet to play for West Ham, has been recalled from his loan spell at Plymouth and is likely to figure on the bench.

Barnsley are without defenders Arjan de Zeeuw and Adie Moses as they start two-match suspensions after picking up five bookings apiece. Manager Danny Wilson will choose between Swede Peter Markstedt, Slovenian international Ales Krizan and Matty Appleby for the centre-back positions.

Derby v Blackburn

Baiano 12 Leading scorer Gallacher, Sutton 13

Last season: 0-0

Derby manager Jim Smith has been forced to draft two young players into his squad for tomorrow's match at Pride Park after wing-back Robert Kozluk was yesterday ruled out. Kozluk has a groin strain to compound problems for Smith, who was already without three midfielders due to suspension. Stefano Eranio, Darryl Powell and Lee Carsley are all serving two-match bans, so Smith has included versatile 21-year-old Craig Smith and 18-year- old Marc Bridge- Wilkinson in his 17-man squad. But the good news for Smith is that Danish defender Jacob Laursen and striker Dean Sturridge are both available after injury.

Lars Bohinen is Blackburn's only doubt after bruising his ribs during last week's FA Cup tie against Wigan and will have a late fitness test. The striking partnership of Chris Sutton and Kevin Gallacher are expected to return after recovering from thigh and back injuries respectively. Martin Dahlin will also be in the squad after training since Wednesday and Gary Croft returns after missing the win over Wigan.