United will reach the summit today if they beat Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, but anything less could concede the higher ground to Chelsea, whose win in midweek suddenly projected them from the chasing pack. Indeed, if the Londoners had defeated Everton last week, as they should have done, they would already be top.
Wednesday's success extended Chelsea's unbeaten League run to 14 matches, and today they take that record to Derby County before travelling to Old Trafford next Wednesday. If Chelsea take six points from those two games rivals will no longer be able to discount them as a cup team lacking the consistency to do their talents justice in the League.
Today they must forget the tiredness and euphoria generated in defeating Aston Villa. "The Villa game took a lot out of everybody," Graeme Le Saux said, "but it's important, whether it's a draw or a win, that we get something at Derby to make Wednesday's performance a good one and set us up to play Manchester United next week. It's going to be hard game. I'm sure Derby think we'll be a bit fatigued, so it's up to us to be resilient, strong and workmanlike in our performance and make sure we pull ourselves through it and win."
Manchester United have also suffered hangovers after heady midweek nights and nine of the 16 league points dropped have come in matches immediately after European matches. Ferguson has wondered out loud whether his players can cope with the twin demands and you suspect he would have chosen many teams to visit today ahead of the resurgent Spurs.
Tottenham beat United 3-1 in the Worthington Cup 10 days ago but that result does not provide the usual injection of confidence as Ferguson played his reserves that night. Today it will be the real thing, or at least they hope it will be.
"We haven't done that well after European games," Gary Neville, their England defender, said, "and we've got to put it right. We can't afford to lose games now."
David Ginola is the man most likely to disappoint Neville and yesterday the Frenchman pledged his future with Spurs. "I want to feel at home here, to stay and help Tottenham to the top of the League," he said. "Since George Graham arrived, we're playing better with every game."
Brian Kidd, who until last week would have anticipated being at White Hart Lane today trying to tease more from United's tired limbs, will instead be hoping to extend a 100 per cent record as Blackburn Rovers manager to two matches against a Newcastle United side the supporters enjoy defeating as much as anyone.
Not that they have antipathy for Newcastle, it's just that Alan Shearer's transfer from Ewood Park to St James' Park is considered to be the start of Rovers' decline. The England captain is likely to be fit to take his place in a much-anticipated partnership with Duncan Ferguson that has been delayed by a hamstring injury.
"Some people might say Newcastle have underachieved," Kidd said, "but that's not our problem. All we can do is concentrate on the things we are doing and hope we get the breaks and results. There's no hiding place for us."
A win will move Blackburn out of the relegation places, but there will be no similar respite for Southampton even if they prevail against Everton at Goodison. The Saints could move off the bottom, however, if they succeed and Nottingham Forest lose at Leicester City.
Goodison Park has suffered a goal drought this season and it is likely to continue as Everton have scored just twice at home and Southampton have gone only one better on their travels. But there is no truth in the rumour that the golden goal competition has been converted into the golden corner for this one.
Nerves will be on edge, too, at Hillsborough, where Sheff-ield Wednesday and Charlton Athletic meet knowing they are both just a few slips from trouble. Wednesday have lost only one of their last eight Premiership matches but are still seventh from bottom while today's visitors have lost their last three and have not won in six matches.
Middlesbrough are another who have not won too often, but their secret is that they do not lose many either and Sunday's match with Newcastle was their ninth draw of the season. West Ham, whose rise to second place was greeted with a 4-0 thumping at Leeds last weekend, are the visitors today.
Aston Villa have taken only two points from the last 12 but showed they could still be title contenders in two close matches with Manchester United and Chelsea. The fixture list gets no kinder because the champions, Arsenal, are the visitors to Villa Park tomorrow, while Liverpool, who are suffering a crisis of confidence, have a difficult trip to their frequent bete noires, Wimbledon.
Good times for Hutchison,
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