Football: Bosnich incurs Gregory's wrath

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The Independent Online
MARK BOSNICH, Aston Villa's maverick goalkeeper, looks certain to have played his last game for the club. John Gregory, increasingly annoyed by Bosnich's refusal to confirm his intentions when he becomes a free agent, has dropped the Australian for today's visit to Manchester United - the club he is expected to re-join under the Bosman ruling this summer.

The Villa manager intimated earlier in the week that he would include Bosnich at Old Trafford provided he recovered from a foot injury, but added pointedly: "Perhaps we'll have to get Alex Ferguson's permission to play him."

Yesterday, however, it became obvious that Gregory's patience had snapped. Announcing that he would keep faith with Michael Oakes, he said: "I only want to pick players who are totally committed to Aston Villa. A decision had to be made this morning, and I took it, for the good of the team and the club."

Gregory has repeatedly urged Bosnich to clarify whether he planned to stay or go when his contract expired. United originally signed him from Sydney Croatia 10 years ago. After three first-team appearances he was wooed to Villa on a free transfer, via a second, brief spell with his Australian club, during Ron Atkinson's reign.

Bosnich's omission, coming shortly after he is thought to have rejected an offer from Liverpool, is a sign that he will succeed Peter Schmeichel when the Dane departs next month. While his absence deprives United supporters of a possible vision of the future, Villa fans will have the dubious pleasure of seeing the past flash before them in the shape of his close friend Dwight Yorke.

At the turn of the year, with his own team leading the table, Gregory was busy projecting ahead himself. With Villa's final two away games being against United and Arsenal, he assumed, not unreasonably, that they might be potential championship deciders. Except in one unfortunate detail, he has been proved right.

Villa, who go to Highbury on the season's final day, abandoned hopes of a claret-and-blue coronation after their mid-term collapse. Yet they remain one of a clutch of possible king-makers. Before last weekend, both United and Arsenal still had to play Leeds, Middlesbrough, Villa and Tottenham. After the opening fixtures in this mini-league, Arsenal edged a point clear, having played a match more.

United have the opportunity today to regain the initiative and renew the pressure on Arsenal, who do not play until tomorrow. But Villa have recovered some of the cohesion that carried them to the summit will not go as easily as they might have done a month ago.

By contrast, Arsenal's visitors, Derby, have faded badly. It was a last- minute defeat at Highbury, in the FA Cup quarter-finals, which effectively left them with nothing more to play for than the slender hope of qualifying for Europe via the Premiership. Since that was apparently dashed, their form has been lacklustre.

Elimination from the Cup has had the opposite effect on Arsenal. After the shattering blow of Ryan Giggs' wondrous winner at Villa Park, they might have been expected to grind out 1-0 wins against Wimbledon and Middlesbrough. But this is Arsene Wenger's team, not George Graham's, and the response was to rattle in 11 goals.

Derby, having failed in their last meeting with a negative strategy, have nothing to lose by being more positive. In Dean Sturridge and Paulo Wanchope they also have strikers whose mobility has troubled Arsenal before, but they have also been leaking goals at a rate not calculated to encourage United.

Chelsea, with home matches against Everton today and Leeds in midweek, can not be ruled out, even if Gianluca Vialli's protestations that they are out of the race sound less like kidology than a month ago. After all, United and Arsenal face volatile games at Liverpool and Spurs respectively on Wednesday. Realistically, though, Chelsea are playing for the third Champions' League place, and Everton's new-found safety should make them less obdurate opponents. Fourth-placed Leeds, meanwhile, are at West Ham.

At the bottom, where three clubs are fighting to avoid filling the remaining two relegation spots, Charlton and Blackburn go head-to-head at The Valley in a contest which threatens to be as desperate and dramatic as Rovers' 3-3 draw with the other endangered side, Southampton.

The Saints themselves, almost in the Coventry class when it comes to defying the drop, will be praying that they beat Leicester while their rivals draw. However, the potential for fresh twists, unlike John Gregory's tolerance, is far from exhausted.