Consistency the key for Liverpool

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The Independent Online
It may have come as a shock yesterday that the screen queen Joan Collins was receiving an OBE rather than handing them out, but that was nothing to what Chelsea experienced at Anfield this season. Unbeaten after six Premiership matches, a spanking new era looked likely until the rude reality intruded on Ruud Gullit's honeymoon as a player-manager.

Spanking was the word as they lost 5-1 that day. As a result the team has been defined in the classic Chelsea mould - good but not good enough - but that could change if they beat Liverpool today and set optimism raging round west London again.

A defeat against the leaders, on top of squandering a 2-0 lead against Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, and Chelsea's inclination would surely be to play for a Uefa Cup place and concentrate on the FA Cup. "We need three points," Craig Burley, their midfield player, said. "The Sheffield Wednesday result was a setback because we had played so well early on. We paid the penalty for not killing the game off."

Liverpool could give lessons in doing that but have established a five- point advantage despite hitting their finest form only fleetingly. "We can be frustrating at times," Roy Evans, their manager, conceded, "but if we concentrate on what we are good at, the results usually come. The secret is to stay patient." Liverpool, who expect Robbie Fowler, Mark Wright and Jason McAteer to shake off injuries, are certain of going into the new year ahead which, in their case, normally means they stay there. Since 31 December 1976, they have been top team nine times at the turn of the year and have converted that into a championship on seven occasions.

On the minus side, Manchester United are the last side to convert second place at Hogmanay into first come May - in 1992 and 1995 - and their position this morning? It is not surprising their manager, Alex Ferguson, has assumed the mood of a man who believes the best is imminent. Three straight wins and 10 goals without reply have moved United into second, a position they will reinforce if they defeat sixth-placed Aston Villa tonight.

Roy Keane, for one, believes the tide has turned: "At the start of the season we had a few injuries and the players weren't playing to their capabilities, but it's starting to come together now. All you need is three or four good results and it helps the confidence."

Ferguson will probably resist the urge to recall Andy Cole, preferring to ease him back into the team with 20-minute bursts, and with Phil Neville out with glandular fever and Gary Pallister plagued with a recurrent back injury, his only dilemma will be whether to include Nicky Butt in the starting line-up.

"Villa are a handful," Ferguson said. "They have recovered from a sticky start and are in good form at the moment. But we've also come through our little hiccup and our players are in the frame of mind where they don't mind who their opponents are."

Neither do Middlesbrough. They seem capable of losing to anyone. They accrued just 28 points from their 35 League games in 1996 and in some of those matches they were able to call on something like their first team. It is not a luxury they will have against Arsenal today as seven players are definitely out and three more are doubtful. So dire is the situation that their manager, Bryan Robson, may make an unwanted playing swan-song 10 days before his 40th birthday.

To make things even worse for Boro, Ian Wright, the Premiership's leading scorer with 22 goals, will be anxious to leave a reminder before sloping off on a three-match suspension. A hat-trick would do nicely.

Boro would prefer the match to be postponed although after last week's fiasco at Blackburn they are hardly likely to say so. But two Premiership games are definitely off today: Derby County against Sheffield Wednesday and Tottenham's match at Leicester. There was also an inspection at Highfield Road yesterday but Coventry are hopeful that their game against Sunderland will go ahead.

After four successive victories, they can scarcely wait to get on to any pitch no matter what the condition. Coventry's run has coincided with Dion Dublin's move from striker to centre-back and yesterday he refuted suggestions he was unhappy with the change.

"I would rather play up front because I am a centre forward," he said, "but with the position we've been in it's a case of all hands to the pump. If that means going back into defence, then I'm willing to play there for the good of the team."

Defenders wishing to be attackers is a concept not unknown at Newcastle even if the reverse is not always the case, although it is hard to nit- pick after their 7-1 rout of Spurs on Saturday. Today they meet Leeds, who have not won in five matches and who are slipping towards the relegation zone again.

Everton are also sliding although, like Middlesbrough, with their injuries it is hardly surprising. Half their team are out today against reviving Blackburn and David Unsworth is missing through suspension. "What looked a bright picture two weeks ago with everyone fit has suddenly got a bit threadbare defensively," Joe Royle, their manager, said. "You can't have enough men these days."

It could have been Miss Collins talking.