Football: Chasers in a weary pack

Norman Fox says the champions' challengers are running out of time and ideas; Can anyone catch United? Chelsea and Blackburn come under the title microscope
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The Independent Online
Manchester United'S superiority in the Premiership this season is no longer even a matter for debate. Chelsea's failure to overcome Wimbledon and Blackburn Rovers' cautious goalless draw with Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day saw to that. But whether United ride to the finishing line needing to crack the whip or canter across it depends on their fading pursuers making much more effective use of their next few games.

An undisturbed victory for United at Coventry today ought not to tax their formidable resources, particularly now that Andy Cole (13 goals in 11 matches) is in such striking form. Even so, Highfield Road is rarely a sympathetic place for champions-in-waiting. Yet if a United team without Peter Schmeichel, Teddy Sheringham and Ryan Giggs could still overwhelm Everton, what chance Coventry who have lost five of their last six matches?

Alex Ferguson insists that a six-point advantage at this stage of the season is more than he expected but if United can retain it going into the new year that will suit him just fine. "Not too big a lead so that we might get complacent, but large enough to help if we slip up somewhere." Meantime, Blackburn, unexpected nearest chasers, should, but probably will not, comfortably beat Crystal Palace today while tomorrow Chelsea go to Southampton seemingly on the verge of wasting those wonderfully entertaining earlier performances that had United looking over their shoulders. A defeat at The Dell would leave them, and their disillusioned manager, much to do.

The persistent rumour that he consistently denies is that Ruud Gullit no longer sees the attractions of West End of London and Chelsea Football Club as having a magnetic hold on his long-term future. But the suggestion is beginning to gain credibility. He is adamant that he is staying put and has often said, as he would, that he looks upon Chelsea as a team with the potential to make a substantial improvement. Maybe so in terms of teamwork (clearly so defensively against Wimbledon), but he is aware that individually it is difficult to see Mark Hughes (34), Gianfranco Zola (31), Dennis Wise (31), and Gianluca Vialli (33) becoming any better than they are now. Nothing wrong with that because their form this season has often been splendid, but when talking of potential and the long term, Manchester United have got to be a generation ahead. They have a training ground full of youngsters waiting to take over when Gary Pallister, Denis Irwin, Cole and Sheringham finally bow to their years. Gullit knows that as well as anyone. He could even be stymied by his own decision to import ready-made foreign players at the expense of discouraging the youth within.

Chelsea's frustration at failing to capitalise on their earlier form and be more successful at home came to a head against Wimbledon. It may persuade Gullit that while a squad system is a luxury offering the chance of surprising the opposition, omitting a player of Zola's rare ability, as he did in that predictably awkward match, simply makes the opposing team thank their luck.

Gullit admits that Chelsea have become victims of expectancy. "Possibly people don't realise that there is still a lot of work to be done and changes to be made." Those changes will have to include the strengthening of defence and the fairly urgent introduction of younger players. Blackburn, too, are not flush with dynamic young hopefuls, rather being a side considerably improved tactically and physically, but perhaps to its limits, by Roy Hodgson's Continental-style coaching. The chances of this same side being together in three years' time are remote. At that point, United's deep reserve strength, based on the development of their own youngsters, could well ensure that they are undisputed champions.

So for Chelsea and Blackburn this period of the season could be the last chance for a long time to interfere with United's plans to establish a dynasty comparable with Arsenal's of the Thirties and Liverpool's of the Eighties. Blackburn must be more out-going against Palace today than they have been recently, especially against Sheffield Wednesday. Since Wednesday were still suffering from the shock of a 4-1 pasting by Chelsea and had lost 7-2 to Blackburn earlier in the season, this, surely was a moment for Rovers to pull back on United's growing lead. A 0-0 draw left them needing victory today or, in effect, losing sight of United and, perhaps, allowing the revitalised, Michael Owen-inspired, Liverpool to close the gap.

Hodgson never predicted that Blackburn would challenge Manchester United this season, nor did Roy Evans, Gullit, George Graham or Arsene Wenger. Now you can see why.

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