Arsenal's awkward Palace appointment

Phil Shaw puts politics to one side and looks ahead to the weekend's highlights
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The Independent Online
So George Graham can now put his feet up, if not, one trusts, in the manner of Eric Cantona. But away from the bung-fu scandals, there is football to be played and a championship to be won.

Every one of this weekend's Premiership fixtures has some bearing on the title race, the jostling for a place in Europe or the struggle to avoid relegation. The matches involving Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United have more riding on them than most, though Arsenal's visit to Crystal Palace is certain to come under intense scrutiny.

Highbury scarcely had time to take in the magnitude of events before Tuesday's victory over Nottingham Forest. Since then, the Premier League report into the allegations against Graham has been published, and he paid a reportedly emotional farewell visit to the training ground (oh, to have been a fly on the wall as he took his leave of John Jensen). Only today, perhaps, will the extent to which the saga has affected a team who resume the defence of their European trophy next week become clearer.

Stewart Houston, Arsenal's caretaker manager, has quite a record to uphold at Selhurst Park. In 12 League and Cup trips to Palace stretching back a quarter of a century, the Gunners have lost only once. That was in 1979, when Terry Venables, as manager, and Gerry Francis, in midfield, were the driving force behind the putative Team of the Eighties. Not until last October did Palace finally win at Arsenal, one of several games pre-dating the Rune Hauge affair which indicated that Highbury's malaise ran deep.

Not counting Houston, only four Scots now manage at the top level, Kenny Dalglish and Alex Ferguson occupying the first two places and Mark McGhee and George Burley the bottom rungs. Dalglish's Blackburn ought to retain the leadership after their collision of buyers and sellers against Norwich. Chris Sutton, whose £5m transfer epitomised both traits, is suspended, though Tim Sherwood, who made the same switch for a tenth of that sum, will recall that Blackburn beat his old club 7-1 two seasons ago.

Everton, who took Norwich for five goals last Saturday, will be without their top scorer, Paul Rideout, as they try to halt United's six-game winning run since losing Cantona. Goodison's forgotten man, Daniel Amokachi, stands by. A week after Jimmy Hill's patronising aside about African navety - which ignored the success of so many of their defenders in Europe - the Nigerian's successful return would be timely indeed.

Coventry, where Ron Atkinson put 5,000 on the gate a week ago, stage a derby six-pointer against Leicester, who are set to discover whether or not the three late goals which earned a draw at Villa Park represent a turning point. Spectators have been flocking to the Sky Blues' suburban training sessions, which either confirms Atkinson's charisma or means McGhee is leaving nothing to chance.

The cry of "Ooh Aah Yeboah" is likely to be heard at Manchester City as Leeds supporters warm to another African with a scoring habit and a name that scans. Tottenham pit their revival against a Vinnie Jones-free Wimbledon, whose neat counter-attacking at Anfield last Sunday demonstrated the folly of reducing the match at White Hart Lane to beauty versus the beast.

Liverpool undertake a journey forever tinged with a terrible poignancy, to Hillsborough, where their followers will be anxious for news of the big game back on Merseyside. Not the one at Everton, but Tranmere, whose position as First Division leaders is the highest in their 110-year history, against Burnley, where Jimmy Mullen could become the next managerial casualty in the event of an eighth successive defeat.

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