Decision day in the Premiership

The dream finish to the season will become a nightmare for the teams who fail. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Online
The Americans would call it Super Sunday. The satellite television company which appears to run the FA Carling Premiership have dubbed it the Dream Double Bill Decider. For the losers in tomorrow's momentous conclusion to the championship race, it will be Sunday, bloody Sunday and about as dreamy as a double hernia.

For the first time in six years, two title rivals enter the final game with nerve-ends not so much jangling as thrashing around like a death- metal rock band. Blackburn Rovers, the leaders, go to Liverpool knowing that victory would make them champions for the first time since the Kaiser meant the German ruler rather than the man who lured Jrgen Klinsmann home.

Should Blackburn falter, Manchester United would retain the title by winning at West Ham. If United were to draw, even a record defeat at Anfield could not deny Kenny Dalglish's team the glory. The situation is so finely balanced that the trophy will not be at either ground, the presentation instead being made on Monday.

"Everybody wants to win the League and we're no different," the Blackburn manager said yesterday. "We're one game away and we might not even have to win it. It's not imperative that we win, but it is imperative that we get the same result as United.''

The two matches are effectively cup-ties, one-off fixtures with a dynamic all of their own. Blackburn, it must be said, have not functioned at their best on such occasions. Witness the failure to see off the Swedish part- timers of Trelleborgs, and home exits in both domestic knock-out competitions, one of which Liverpool inflicted.

Nor have they coped well with the pressure of being champions-elect, as indicated by a return of seven points from the last five games. Despite having David Batty's passing skill back on line, they have been hoisting long balls hastily towards Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton, making their one high-class unit easier to shackle.

United, in contrast, have been there, seen it, done it and sold the T- shirts. They seem to be enjoying the novelty of challenging from behind, and are playing with enough freedom to chalk up one more win against West Ham. If Alex Ferguson needs an inspiring example for his team talk, he need look no further than the epic 6-1 victory at Upton Park which clinched Matt Busby's last title in 1967.

The United manager, who recalled yesterday that a doomed West Ham tilted the balance towards Leeds by beating his men three years ago, will change a winning team to give Roy Keane his first outing since being sent off in the FA Cup semi-final replay.

"We're delighted to be in the position where we've got a chance," Ferguson said. "A few weeks ago Blackburn had to throw it away, and we just had to hope they did.

"My players are mentally strong. The whole squad has gone up in my estimation with the way they've performed these past few weeks. They've shown incredible commitment, played fantastic football and proved it's not easy to take the title off them."

Dalglish dismissed talk of Liverpool lying down for their former manager as "an insult". Roy Evans's team can certainly not be seen to be taking things easy, though having long since qualified for Europe, through winning the Coca-Cola Cup, they may have subconsciously relaxed. And that might actually work in their favour against opponents racked by tension.

Yet Blackburn's destiny remains in their own hands. They know what they have to do; if Dalglish and his coach, Ray Harford, can convince them to go at it positively, rather than hoping or waiting for things to happen, they will be worthy, if uncharismatic, champions.

It's also judgement day at the foot of the table. Assuming that Sheffield Wednesday take at least the point they need - and they receive the bottom club, Ipswich - Crystal Palace supporters will be left to hope for an unlikely double. A win for their own side at Newcastle, where only Leeds have succeeded in 16 months, has to be accompanied by defeat for Aston Villa at relegated Norwich.

Brian Little, who made a habit of becoming embroiled in last-day dramas at Darlington and Leicester, yesterday summed up the emotional mangle through which everyone involved will go tomorrow. "It could be close to being the best or worst moment of my career," the Villa manager said.

"You end up driving yourself round the twist thinking 'if they do this, then so and so will happen'. So when I heard West Ham were winning 3-0 in midweek, I went straight to bed."

Palace's prospects are scarcely enhanced by the fact that Newcastle need three points to have any chance of preventing Leeds claiming the last guaranteed Uefa Cup berth. The Yorkshire side face a tricky finish at Tottenham, but buoyed by Tony Yeboah's decision not to follow Klinsmann back to the Bundesliga, ought to make their point.