Football: Barren spell is ominous for Saunders

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The Independent Online
Aston Villa. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

Coventry City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

WHEN the full story of the inaugural Premier League title race is told, Dean Saunders's run of nearly 1,000 minutes without a goal for Aston Villa may prove as important to the denouement as the two in four minutes with which Steve Bruce restored Manchester United to the leadership.

Saunders last scored 10 games ago, a virtuoso effort against Ipswich which sent John Motson into paroxysms of pleasure. However, what Villa need from the Welshman, starting at Highbury today, is a return to the close- range ruthlessness which led Ron Atkinson to label him 'the best finisher I've worked with' last autumn.

The Villa manager reflected then that if he had possessed a striker of Saunders's quality during his sojourn at Old Trafford, United would have won everything 'including the Ashes'. His words took on a numbing irony as Saunders endured another barren afternoon against Coventry - who receive Alex Ferguson's men today - and Villa reached the dressing- room to learn of Bruce's late show.

'We could do with Deano turning the corner,' Atkinson admitted afterwards. Not that it has been easy for the pounds 2.3m recruit from Liverpool. No sooner had he established a rapport with Dalian Atkinson than his partner was ruled out for four months. Already deprived by injury of Tony Daley, Villa then lost another winger, Stephen Froggatt, whose crosses had been vital to Saunders's early success.

Saunders and the manager's namesake, who has not netted since early December, had opportunities inside the first half-minute. Last May, Coventry had conceded a goal after 22 seconds at Villa Park, and history looked set to repeat itself as Saunders surged through. When

Jonathan Gould parried his shot the ball fell to Atkinson, who sent it wide.

Villa seemed to take the double miss as a sign that this would not be their day; commendable prescience as it turned out. Saunders put two cleverly worked efforts over the top, and the rusty Atkinson stabbed another opening too high. Gould, who is his father's keeper, was not forced into another save.

Coventry made life difficult by not pushing out to halfway, which would have invited the ball over the top to the two quick front men. They also created chances on the break, and it was Villa's good fortune, as it will be United's, that Peter Ndlovu is absent on World Cup duty with Zimbabwe.

Ron Atkinson said hopefully that 'everyone will be thinking United have passed the post'. Before Villa's game at Arsenal, where Daley's return would enhance the service to Saunders, he might remind his troops that in their 37th match last season Leeds lost top spot to United by crashing 4-0 at Manchester City, yet still won the championship.

The difference is that United then had to face four fixtures in six days. As Villa prepare for the next act in the compulsive psycho-drama Waiting for Deano, they must hope the exertions of Bruce's passion play will impose a similar strain on the leaders at Highfield Road. After all, United did play six minutes more on Saturday.

Aston Villa: Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker, Saunders, Atkinson, Yorke (Daley, 83). Substitutes not used: Small, Spink (gk).

Coventry City: Gould; Borrows, Babb, Atherton, Gynn, Rennie, McGrath, Hurst, Quinn, Wegerle (Jenkinson, 67), Williams. Substitutes not used: Busst, Ogrizovic (gk).

Referee: A Gunn (South Chailey, Sussex).

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