Dearth of quality behind Premiership leaders

Relegation fears are to the forefront this weekend, writes Trevor Hayle tt
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Rather like too many England cricket teams of recent memory, there is an awfully long tail to this season's premiership, and half-way is no longer a safe house. Arsenal, who currently personify mid-table mediocrity, cannot afford complacency, with only six points separating them from the final relegation berth.

It is tight enough to cause serious alarm to Chelsea should their slide continue at Highfield Road, and to the losers of the match between Southampton and Manchester City at The Dell. Nowhere, however, will relegation nerves jangle more loudly today thanin East Anglia and the East Midlands.

If both Leicester and Ipswich are defeated this afternoon, their survival chances would appear to have gone west. The white-flag stage of the campaign is still some way in the distance, but to allow West Ham and Crystal Palace to make off with maximum points - call it six in both these instances - would be a mortal blow.

Leicester will be more confident of seeing off the Hammers than Ipswich will be of answering their particular London challenge. Leicester played well in the mud at Portsmouth last week, and Mark McGhee has made more raids in the transfer market to strengthen his squad. The Celtic midfielder, Mike Galloway, has arrived on loan and makes his debut today, and by the end of the weekend, Garry Parker should have signed from Aston Villa in a £650,000 deal. Under Brian Little, the previous Filbert Street incumbent, Villa have made consistent progress and have risen to 12th position. In a normal season, the heat would now be off them.

However, today they become Manchester United's first League opponents since Eric Cantona leapt towards more controversy with both feet, and if his absence is thought to be to their advantage, history suggests something different. the Midlanders have onlytasted victory once at Old Trafford in the last 40 years.

With help from an unlikely source in the shape of Leeds' defiant midweek display which prised a point from Ewood Park - the first drawn game there this season - United can put themselves within two points of Blackburn by this evening. Rovers do not play until tomorrow, and with Gerry Francis bringing a gradual improve- ment to Tottenham Hotspur, they cannot expect things to be as easy as on their last two visits to White Hart Lane, both of which resulted in victory. The leaders would appear to have the championship prize all to themselves. Below them, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest tangle at the City Ground, while Newcastle strive to embellish their feel-good factor at Loftus Road, where Peter Beardsley struck one of the goals of the season last winter.

There could be a new name at the head of the First Division tonight if Middlesbrough fall victim to Reading's impressive away record. Defeat would render Bryan Robson's side vulnerable to either Wolves or their opponents, Bolton, who have been closing down the front-runners remorselessly.