Ferguson puts Pearce to the test

Football

Even allowing for a Boxing Day tradition which dictates that the form book goes out of the window, the odds are stacked against the Premiership's newest manager when he pits his wits against his longest-serving counterpart today.

Stuart Pearce is the self-confessed novice taking his second game as caretaker manager of Nottingham Forest, Alex Ferguson the canny veteran presiding over his 542nd in charge of Manchester United. Forest lie bottom of the table; United, who have won the last two meetings 5-0 and 4-1, harbour hopes of retaining their championship.

Pearce has until the end of next month to decide whether he wants the job permanently. He surprised many people, including Arsene Wenger, one suspects, with his approach to Saturday's victory over Arsenal. If the fist-shaking and exhortations were entirely predictable, the imaginative changes in formation and personnel were not.

This afternoon's game will, if anything, be an even sterner test of his tactical acumen. Colin Cooper might be deputed to do the marking job on Eric Cantona that he did so successfully on Paul Merson, though with Ferguson forewarned, "Psycho" may have to come up with fresh strategies. And as if managing the relegation favourites was not hard enough, he also has to play and will doubtless hope Ryan Giggs sticks to the opposite flank.

United are equally desperate for the points. They must avoid losing touch with the teams above them (although the way they came from being 10 points behind Newcastle at the half way stage last season offers encouragement to all) and to confirm that the 5-0 rout of Sunderland really did represent a return to their best.

While the United manager has the option of recalling a fit-again Andy Cole against his home-town team, Pearce may be tempted to start with the on-loan Nigel Clough - who could well become his assistant - in place of Bryan Roy. If that happens and Forest win, it would be a rare instance of a Manchester City player tasting victory over United: Boxing Day magic gone mad.

Because of the demands of television, leaders Liverpool will have played four times in 10 days before New Year's Day is over; likewise Newcastle. But strenuous as the "holiday" schedule is, it offers teams the chance to build momentum and burn off rivals with a rapid accumulation of points.

Liverpool must be confident of maintaining their three-point advantage against Leicester at Anfield. Coincidentally, the clubs met at Filbert Street two years ago today. Of the Leicester line-up that day - which was early in the Mark McGhee era - only Simon Grayson and Mick Whitlow remains. Revealingly, the Liverpool side this afternoon would have been virtually identical but for the departures of Ian Rush and John Scales.

Monsieur Wenger, having been outwitted by Pearce, now comes up against David Pleat, a seasoned practitioner in games of cat and mouse, when second- placed Arsenal visit Sheffield Wednesday this evening. By co-incidence, The Italian Job will be advertising the virtues of the Mini on television as Pleat's clever mini striker from Internazionale, Benito Carbone, attempts to perform one on a defence that will include Tony Adams after suspension.

The West London Azzurri, aka Chelsea, will be hard pressed to give their followers a belated "Buon Natale" at Aston Villa. Ruud Gullit's side have looked a soft touch on their travels whereas Villa's title odds have been slashed from 33-1 to 8-1 after five successive wins. The 5-0 walloping of Wimbledon was only the second time they have scored more than twice in a match all season, so Brian Little must be looking to Savo Milosevic to prove that Sunday was not simply a glorious aberration.

If Villa Park holds bittersweet memories for Chelsea, who surrendered a winning position in an FA Cup semi-final there against Manchester United last spring, imagine what emotions Newcastle's return to Blackburn is likely to unleash. For it was at Ewood Park on Easter Monday that one Geordie, Rovers' Graham Fenton, scored twice in the last four minutes to provoke an outbreak of highly public blubbering among thousands of others.

Newcastle's defeat that night virtually ensured that the championship would go to Old Trafford, but this time Blackburn's other Tynesider, Alan Shearer, is in their colours. Only the most mean-spirited of his once- adoring public will not give the England captain a warm welcome, though the same may not be true of Gary McAllister's return with Coventry to Leeds, whose fans made it clear that they felt their former captain had betrayed them when the clubs met in September.

Also going back, to Middlesbrough, is Everton's Nick Barmby. His old colleagues have not won since he left - the run now stands at 12 matches - and were accused of behaving like a pub team after pulling out of last weekend's fixture at Blackburn. The casualty list at the Riverside is so lengthy that those ghosts of Boxing Day past, Bryan Robson (40 in January) and Viv Anderson (40 already), have put themselves on standby.

Meanwhile, Wimbledon have the perfect opportunity to launch another undefeated sequence when they play host to West Ham, who have not won in nine games. In the unlikely event of the Dons sulking over the end of their four-month run, they may care to reflect on the state they were in going into their Boxing Day match 12 months ago.

Lying third from bottom after 14 Premiership games without a win, they triumphed 2-1 at Chelsea despite having Vinnie Jones sent off. Suddenly third from top and one defeat in 20 does not look so bad.

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Popes current and former won't be watching the football together
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
business
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Sport
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
books
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting