Contenders briefed on title play-off Play-off for title looms into view

Phil Shaw previews tonight's two games which affect the race for the Premiership
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The Independent Online
Like the newly binned Manchester United away strip, the destination of the Premiership trophy is a grey area again. The top two are at home to lowly opposition tonight, yet now face the added pressure of needing to pile on the goals.

On the eve of United's game against Leeds - in which Gary Pallister is set to make a long-awaited comeback - Alex Ferguson played down the idea that they might be forced to play off for the championship with Newcastle, who face Southampton. "It won't come to that," he said, "but we do know that goals are very important."

Despite Ferguson's confidence, FA Premier League officials will discuss the matter with the clubs tomorrow. The rules provide for a play-off if two clubs finish level on points, goal difference and goals scored. Newcastle are two goals behind the leaders but, as things stand today, they would be level on all three counts if they won their game in hand 2-0.

Agreeing a date for such a match could be awkward. United meet Liverpool in the FA Cup final on 11 May, with the following Thursday set aside for a replay. Two days later, England play Hungary at Wembley, and within 48 hours Terry Venables takes his squad on a Far Eastern tour to prepare for the European Championship finals.

By tomorrow, of course, the situation may have altered radically. United look to have the less arduous task. Southampton, striving for points to avoid relegation, tackle Newcastle buoyed by the 3-1 rout of United. Leeds, already past the 40-point safety mark, have been playing as if mentally they are already on the beach.

Ferguson put it succinctly: "Southampton are the one club we're confident about in terms of trying their best. It's either that or go down." Perhaps mindful that one flash of inspiration from Matthew Le Tissier could break Newcastle - and that he thrives on appreciation - he added: "He was superb against us. He's got tremendous talent and scoring ability."

On paper, United should have little trouble beating Leeds, whose defensive problems have deepened with each defeat. But it might be a different story if Howard Wilkinson sets out to stop the home side playing. The Leeds manager paved the way for a night of massed defence by confirming that Tomas Brolin, who reportedly intends to exercise his "escape" clause in the summer, would not be considered.

"I spoke to Tomas about his future and he told me he hadn't made his mind up yet," Wilkinson said. "I don't think we can go to Old Trafford unless we have everyone 100 per cent committed. There will be 50,000 people there and Manchester United will have the bit between their teeth."

Tony Yeboah, who injured a knee playing for Ghana a few days after the Coca-Cola Cup final, faces a fitness test. Meanwhile, Pallister will inform his manager as to whether his back has suffered any reaction to five days' intensive training. Ferguson, asked whether Leeds' preponderance of six- footers made him keener to have the England defender back, said: "No. It's because he's the best centre-half in the country."

Before the weekend's results threw the title race open again, Kevin Keegan welcomed the game's newest manager, John Aldridge, to "the Grey Hair Club". Anything but three points tonight and Keegan might turn as white as Manchester United's next away kit.

Faustino Asprilla (ankle) and Les Ferdinand (virus) should play as Newcastle seek to avenge their own defeat at The Dell, but John Beresford (excessive lip to manager) may give way to Robbie Elliott. Whatever the personnel, both main challengers are certain to be as up for this one as Eric Cantona's collar.