Ferguson attacks League's schedule

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The Independent Online
This time last year Manchester United versus Liverpool had a sub- plot so arresting it was difficult to focus on the main event. Eric Cantona's return from an eight-month suspension would probably have overshadowed any match, so it is pleasant to be able to dwell on the prodigious sum this time rather than the prodigal son.

Not that the kick-off time of 11.15am is conducive to anyone wishing to linger over ancient rivalries. Get distracted today and the match will be over before the average football supporter has had time to rise and relish the prospect of the Premiership leaders travelling to meet the champions. Whatever happened to the Saturday 3pm kick-off?

What occurred in this case was, as ever, television. Sky wanted to show this match tomorrow but United, who have a long flight Turkey to Fenerbahce in the Champions' League next week, would not brook that and with Greater Manchester Police understandably anxious about a cocktail of several hours drinking and 55,000 Mancunians and Liverpudlians with a 5pm start, a morning kick-off was necessary to avoid a clash with the rest of the League programme.

As it happens, Sky who, commendably, were happy to accommodate morning glory rather than insisting on Sunday dinner, have been considerably more helpful than the Premiership fixtures computer. Other countries could, but probably would not, contrive to put the bitterly contested equivalent of United versus Liverpool together the weekend before both clubs play in Europe, but only England, you imagine, would welcome them back with matches against Newcastle and Everton respectively.

Such scheduling is crass and Alex Ferguson, the United manager, was justified in calling for changes yesterday. "We are expected to be performing for England but it's depending on bulldog resilience to churn out results in Europe," he said. "It's too much to face a testing game against Liverpool and then expect us to be magnificent against Fenerbahce on Wednesday.

"I'm not saying you should be allowed to pick your fixtures, but teams who are playing in Europe should be kept apart. Ideally we'd all have home games before European matches and we'd all play on Saturday. It's a simple reorganisation."

Ferguson has a fully fit squad today apart from - and this could be crucial - Roy Keane, who was outstanding when the teams met in the FA Cup final. The Irishman's physical presence almost totally nullified Liverpool's attacking threat that day, reducing John Barnes, Jamie Redknapp, Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore to anonymity.

Only two of that quartet will play today and you would expect that Patrik Berger and Michael Thomas will, in Keane's absence, be able to impose themselves more forcibly.

Liverpool had the better of the two teams' meetings in League last season, unlucky to draw 2-2 on Cantona's return and United hugely fortunate to slip away from Anfield with only a 2-0 defeat over Christmas. On their day the Merseysiders give a compelling case for being the best team in the country, even without the injured Fowler, but no side has been better in head-to-head encounters with the Premiership front-runners in recent seasons than today's opponents.

"They're four points clear of us," Ferguson said. "We can't afford to let them get further ahead. They've had a good start which has helped their confidence, but we are at our best sometimes in challenges like this."

With such a titanic clash as an appetiser, the main course might appear an anticlimax although it would be difficult to describe Arsene Wenger's first match in charge of Arsenal as such. The Gunners travel to Blackburn today, possibly more surprised than anyone that they are in third place while their opponents are still waiting for their first League win of the season.

There has been much talk in the capital about the formation Wenger will adopt. There has been speculation he might choose a five-man defence, with perhaps a surprise in the central trio. At least Dennis Bergkamp can be ruled out as the Dutchman is still out of action with a hamstring injury.

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