Football: Atkinson relaxed about Villa thriller: Phil Shaw relishes a weekend football programme when the championship race may acquire a new slant

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TRUDGING off the Aston Villa training ground yesterday wearing a camouflage cap which made him look like 'Stormin' Norman', Ron Atkinson insisted that tomorrow's so-called title decider at Manchester United was just one more battle rather than the war itself.

The normally ebullient Villa manager was a model of relaxed restraint, defusing the winner-takes- all aura of the fixture and resisting the temptation to give his successor at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson, any motivational weapons.

Surely, he was asked by one of the phalanx of press men who had descended on rural Warwickshire, it was the biggest game of the season? 'Every match we play is the most important at the time,' Atkinson replied. But wouldn't the winners gain the upper hand psychologically? 'The biggest advantage would be the points.'

At the end of the day, as it were, defeat would not be the end of the world. 'There's still 27 points to play for after Sunday,' Atkinson said, 'which is a million miles in football.' He admitted placing 'a sizeable bet' on United last season with only three matches left, but felt that the absence of Bryan Robson, whom he expects to be back on the bench tomorrow, had contributed to Leeds's triumph.

Then there was the Norwich factor. 'They're still in there. If they were to beat Oldham at home (today), the worst they can be is two points behind United or ourselves. All the hype is working beautifully for Norwich. They're sitting back in East Anglia saying, 'You two keep going head to head while we keep nicking points, and you've both still got to come to our place'.'

Atkinson, who may recall Bryan Small to counter United's pace on the flanks and move Steve Staunton into midfield at Tony Daley's expense, believes Norwich may relish the lack of pressure much as Sheffield Wednesday did last season. With attention focused on United and Leeds, Wednesday kept chipping away and were in with a chance until the final minute of the penultimate match.

Norwich will be further heartened by the news that they do not have to face Ian Marshall, the Oldham striker-cum-stopper they want to sign, because of injury. However, they will be wary of Neil Adams, whose midweek winner against United was his third goal in successive games.

Liverpool and Leeds, who launched the season in the Charity Shield and have been giving generously ever since, both face stern tests of their resolve to avoid relegation. Liverpool go to Graeme Souness's old stamping ground, Middlesbrough, who, like Oldham, will be striving to build on a long-overdue win (at Ipswich).

Leeds defend a home record second only to Manchester United's against Manchester City, who have more away wins than anyone in the Premier League. David Kerslake makes his debut at right-back for the champions, who are without Gordon Strachan (suspended) and Gary McAllister (broken arm).

Kerslake, incidentally, was the player over whom Kevin Keegan threatened to resign last year when the Newcastle board refused to sanction his signing from Swindon. Strange, then, that on the day Leeds moved in, Keegan bought another right-back, Barnsley's Mark Robinson, who plays for the First Division leaders today . . . at fourth-placed Swindon.

The eligibility of Newcastle's latest capture, Bristol City's Andrew Cole, makes that fixture stick out like a smooth-shaven England cricketer, even in an particularly attractive Football League programme. Among other newcomers, after a busy week for transfers, will be Tranmere's Tommy Coyne, from Celtic, hoping to fill the injured John Aldridge's boots as well as the Leicester net.

Birmingham may parade as many as four fresh faces at home to Bristol City, plus a 'sensible' new royal-blue kit to replace the pebble-dashed abomination encouragingly ditched by the club's new regime.

In the Second Division, where Stoke are 10 points clear at the top, the scrap for the other automatic promotion spot is set to intensify, with Port Vale (second) at home to Bolton (sixth and surging) and Leyton Orient (third) visiting West Brom (fifth).

There is a similarly enticing prospect in the Third, where leaders Barnet entertain York, in fourth place. Whereas York yesterday lost their manager, John Ward, to Bristol Rovers, Barnet could even forfeit their League status unless they pay an outstanding pounds 50,000 fine.

The brinkmanship of Stan Flashman, the Barnet chairman, will beggar belief among the clubs seeking to beat the drop into the GM Vauxhall Conference. Two of those threatened, Torquay and Halifax, meet in Devon where the tackling might make even Old Trafford seem tame.