Ferguson's future is a distraction

Guy Hodgson on a vital weekend for the Premiership's title-chasing clubs
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Manchester United and Selhurst Park, it seems, come together and make a volatile concoction. On the first return to the ground where Eric Cantona performed football's most infamous scissors kick, trouble could be brewing again.

Attention today had expected to fall on the Frenchman who leads United's attempt to overhaul the Premiership leaders, Newcastle, against Wimbledon just over a year since he assaulted a spectator at Selhurst Park. Instead his manager, Alex Ferguson, is threatening to divert the media's gaze away from the pitch.

Suggestions that the club were stalling negotiations over a contract to supplement the current one which ends next year were not denied by Ferguson. "I approached the club last summer," he said, "and the matter was put back to January. Now I don't know what's happening. In a perfect world I would like to spend the rest of my career at Old Trafford, but I can't stay without a contract."

Ferguson was also adamant that United will have their own security presence today despite warnings from Selhurst Park that Ned Kelly, Cantona's minder in away matches since his return from suspension on 1 October, would not be allowed in the players' tunnel. "Ned Kelly is part of the official party; they can't stop him," he said. "If we choose to have him on the bench, it's our decision."

All of which overshadowed United's preparations for a match they need to win if they are to cause Newcastle the slightest concern. Runaway Premiership leaders, they entertain Sheffield Wednesday today without the suspended David Ginola and Darren Peacock but seemingly oblivious to tension.

"Pressure is when you are down at the bottom fighting relegation," Robert Lee, their England midfield player, said, "not when you're nine points clear with a game in hand. I can't see why we can't extend our lead."

There will be less pressure at Southampton today, too, on Duncan Ferguson. The Scot will be playing in Everton's colours for the first time without the threat of a suspension or a jail sentence to divert his thoughts. A judge this week upheld his appeal against serving the remaining games of a 12-match ban for butting an opponent. "It's been hanging over his head and we are delighted," Joe Royle, his manager, said.

Liverpool, who along with Everton, were given the freedom of their home city this week, will hope their strikers, Stan Collymore and Robbie Fowler, have equal liberty in the Tottenham penalty area.

Having faced the toughest defence in the Premiership, Aston Villa, they now face the team with the best away record, with their manager, Roy Evans, pin-pointing John Barnes rather than his prolific strikers as the key element, in the club's move to second spot.

"He gets our other players going even if he's not having the best of games himself. His influence in the team isn't noticed or appreciated enough by people outside Liverpool."