Ferguson welcomes Villa test

Paul Newman looks forward to an intriguing weekend in the Premiership
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The Independent Online
First impressions are so often misleading. Three games into this season Sheffield Wednesday were the only Premiership team with a 100 per cent record, Everton were unbeaten and had the air of title contenders, Newcastle had lost twice and were playing like a bunch of misfits, and pointless Wimbledon were looking as though their Premiership days were numbered.

Three games later and the memory of those early Premiership tables is fading as fast as the light on a late September evening. Wednesday have taken one point out of the last six, Everton have lost three in a row, while Newcastle and Wimbledon have won three in succession.

Anyone who drew hasty conclusions from this season's opening exchanges would have done well to look back to last year. On last season's opening day Manchester United's youngsters lost 3-1 away to Aston Villa and it was not only television analysts who were agreeing that "you'll win nothing with kids".

While Fergie's Fledglings went on to win the Double, the match also proved a turning point for Villa, who had narrowly escaped relegation three months earlier. Brian Little's team ended the season fourth in the table and with the Coca-Cola Cup in their trophy cupboard.

When United were held to a goalless draw in the return match at Old Trafford Alex Ferguson described Villa as "dour and uncompromising", but as the champions prepared for their visit to Villa Park today their manager was more charitable.

"I have marked Villa down as a big threat to everybody this season and Brian Little has done a terrific job in his one full season in charge," Ferguson said.

With an eye on United's match in the Champions' League next Wednesday, he added: "They are powerful and play with three centre-backs, which is exactly the same way as Rapid Vienna, so maybe it isn't a bad game for us in that respect."

England's European contingent, including both United and Villa, were excused from Coca-Cola Cup second-round duty this season, which could prove an advantage today to Liverpool and Newcastle in particular.

While Roy Evans and Kevin Keegan were able to focus their teams' attention in midweek on today's Premiership matches, their opponents, Chelsea and Leeds respectively, were concentrating on games against Blackpool and Darlington.

The Anfield meeting between the Premiership leaders and Ruud Gullit's team is one to relish. Frank Leboeuf and Gianluca Vialli, rested for the trip to Blackpool, return, though Liverpool's major overseas summer signing, Patrik Berger, will have to wait until shortly before kick-off to find out whether he will make his full debut.

Berger scored twice after coming on as a second-half substitute at Leicester last week and hit two more for the Czech Republic against Malta in midweek. With Stan Collymore looking so out of touch, Evans may be tempted to change his starting line-up for the first time this season.

George Graham's first home match as manager of Leeds saw his new charges scrape a 2-2 draw at home to Darlington and Leeds again entertain North- east opponents for his first Premiership match at Elland Road. The challenge, however, should be even greater as the visitors are Newcastle.

Tony Adams, who underwent a knee operation after Euro 96, may play his first Premiership game for Arsenal since January after being named in the squad for the trip to Middlesbrough, while Paul Rideout is ready to make his first start in the Premiership for six months for Everton, who will hope to take advantage of Blackburn's problems at Ewood Park.