Football: Battle of familiarity at Old Trafford

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The Independent Online
GIVEN THE amount of spying, scouting and video-studying that goes on in modern football, there is little excuse for any team to be caught unawares by the opposition, even in Cup ties. All the less so this weekend, when three of the four FA Cup quarter-finals are a repeat of matches in last season's competition, while Arsenal and Derby have already met in the Worthington Cup and the Premiership.

The familiarity between Manchester United and Chelsea, preparing to collide at Old Trafford tomorrow, will be greatest of all. Last season there were four meetings, including the Charity Shield and an FA Cup third-round match at Stamford Bridge, in which Chelsea suffered the unusual fate of scoring three goals, each nothing more than a consolation - United, irrepressible in attack, already had five in the locker. An unusual double-header either side of Christmas brought them together twice in quick succession this season; Alex Ferguson conceded that Chelsea were the better side in the 1-1 draw in Manchester, but his team deserved their point in an anti- climactic and goalless return game.

That has been the way of many recent encounters between the two, with the home team often struggling to break down the visitors and getting caught out. If the pattern is changed tomorrow, it may be in part because the London club are suffering for greater sins over the past few weeks, leading to suspensions for important players in every area of the pitch - Franck Leboeuf, Dennis Wise, Celestine Babayaro and Gianluca Vialli. The absence of United's Jaap Stam looks less serious in comparison.

"We go there with confidence," Vialli insisted, after his team had followed United's dramatic Inter-mezzo on Wednesday with a more languid waltz through the Norwegian Wood in the Cup-Winners' Cup the following night. Because the second legs of the respective European ties take place the week after next, the Met Police (keen on anything that improves their popularity at present?) have agreed that a replay of tomorrow's game would be on Wednesday.

Should the Old Trafford match live up to expectations, the second half of tomorrow's double bill, between Newcastle and Everton, will do well to come close to it in terms of entertainment. All that remains in the memory of last season's televised third-round tie between them at Goodison is that the only goal was scored for Newcastle by a certain Ian Rush. If he does not notch one soon for Wrexham, it could even go down as the last of his famous career.

Newcastle, of course, went on from that game all the way to Wembley. Comfortable in mid-table, they can afford to be single-minded about the Cup again. Everton will be uncomfortably aware that any benefit to their confidence from an extended run in the competition might come at the expense of injuries, suspensions or points, weakening an already anaemic Premiership campaign.

If Chelsea's visit to Manchester is the match of the round, Tottenham's trek to Barnsley is the most authentic FA Cup tie, one rendered even tastier by the home team's 3-1 success against them in the fourth round last season, prior to devouring Manchester United as well.

A repeat would, nevertheless, be even more startling. While Barnsley have slipped back to something nearer their natural station in life over the past year, particularly short of goals and even players, this is the Tottenham of Mr Graham, not Herr Gross. An unbeaten run of 16 games is the club's best since an identical time of year in 1981-2, when , for those who like omens, they reached the final of both domestic cups.

No sorrows have had to be drowned anywhere in north London since well before Christmas, as Arsenal are also on a long run without defeat (13 or 14 games, according to whether Sheffield United counts as one match or two). Today the Cup holders have home advantage against Derby, having beaten them at Pride Park in the Worthington Cup with a deliberately weakened side, and drawn there in the Premiership. The absence of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, the team's French fulcrum, gives greatest hope to Derby, who were solid enough in defence but ineffectual further forward at Spurs last week.

In the Premiership, the fact that Coventry play Charlton means Everton will slip one step further into trouble, whatever the result. For Coventry it is the first of five winnable home games that could ensure their survival for yet another year, though Charlton, after three wins and a draw, also approach it in good heart.

Like Everton, Southampton would probably prefer a draw at Highfield Road, accompanied, in their case, by a home win over West Ham, to bring them level with Blackburn.

Leicester, without a win in seven Premiership games, will not sleep well either unless they take home at least a point from Wimbledon.