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.

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