Football: Captain Havoc seeks to ease Souness' stress: Henry Winter previews a programme full of consuming distractions

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The Independent Online
AMONG Englishmen, only Phil Don and Elton John possess a vested interest in the weekend's gambol in Las Vegas; introspection rules for the rest. Fortunately the domestic stakes, particularly in the Premiership, offer the most consuming of distractions. The order of the day is intense hopes, heated homecomings, managers in the spotlight and a skipful of other controversies - and that's just Liverpool's visit to White Hart Lane.

Of all today's elite engagements, the trip Graeme Souness makes to Tottenham Hotspur, where a dynamic career began discreetly, is perhaps the most important. A Leeds United victory over Arsenal will narrow to a mere 10 points the lead of Manchester United, who host Aston Villa tomorrow, but the Souness Situation is reverting to the seriousness of May. Kenny Dalglish bequeathed Souness myriad problems, but his inheritance also comprised a flow of youthful talent, from McManaman to Matteo, plus a fat chequebook; since last year's FA Cup kudos, Souness' success has been minimal.

Anfield stress the manager's position is not in doubt, but another

nadir - this time in midweek to Wimbledon - has not helped his cause. Souness must now ensure Liverpool begin climbing from a modest ninth place and prosper in the FA Cup. Overcoming an uneasy Spurs would ease the tension.

The prospects are not good. Like Souness, Ossie Ardiles, who can do without the current spate of 'loan player' jokes, needs a restorative run and although his attractive team have struggled without their recognised strikers - as a record of a solitary win in nine League games indicates - Darren Anderton and the returning Nick Barmby can harness enough speed and skill to disrupt Neil Ruddock's reappearance before the Paxton Road punters.

To Peter Beardsley, the strong-arm Liverpool stopper is more Captain Havoc than Captain Haddock, but the Newcastle striker should continue his remarkable rehabilitation from a pre-season Ruddock blow in his return, to Everton, whose Gwladys Street admirers still cannot comprehend his sale. Beardsley's team-mate, Paul Bracewell, also makes a poignant return to the club which 'kept faith in me' through six ankle operations.

As Newcastle know, part of the problem in chasing Manchester United is that the contenders are all taking points off each other:

second-placed Leeds enjoyed a fine 14-match spree until Norwich intervened on Monday. At Elland Road today, one of the Premiership's most versatile midfields will face one of the most pedestrian, although Arsenal's obduracy and traditional Indian sign over the Yorkshiremen (last season's 3-0 defeat apart) points to a draw.

Norwich, Leeds' recent nemesis, visit Portman Road for an intriguing East Anglian derby. Ipswich are unbeaten in six and field more centre-halves than even George Graham would countenance - a defensive intent slightly induced by midfield injuries. Still, Sutton, Fox and Ekoku have the pace and inclination to run at large rearguards.

Bringing up the Premiership rear are two clubs who could conceivably swap positions in their County Ground meeting today. If Swindon put six past Southampton - an unlikely scenario, unless Dave Beasant and Ken Monkou lay on their panto double act again - John Gorman's pleasing side will finally climb off the canvas. Fellow strugglers, Sheffield United, keenly require their first away win of the season but Wimbledon, Dave Bassett's old club, is not the place to go looking for it.

Outside the top flight, rich entertainment is promised at Portsmouth, where Jim Smith's old club, Oxford, visit in dire need of points, at Birmingham City for St Andrews' first glimpse of Barry Fry, and at Reading, where the Second Division leaders have yet to lose. Brighton v Bradford sounds average but the banter between the benches should be interesting: Liam Brady, in his first match as Goldstone manager, taking on another distinguished Arsenal alumni, Frank Stapleton.