Football: Cole aiming to prove his worth

Premiership kick-off: Manchester United face an early test as English elite prepare to revel in the feel-good factor
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The Independent Online
WORLD CUP summers once had a knock-on effect on the English season's big kick-off. If the national team had flopped, attendances suffered, and vice-versa. After 1966 and all that, crowds soared. A limp exit in '82 saw them slump whereas heroic failures in '70 and '86 stimulated a rise against the trend.

Today, with at least two-thirds of the Premiership's opening programme set to be played before full houses, it will be as if the country shared Glenn Hoddle's delusion that England had a successful tournament.

The elite division is now so powerful and so popular that it matters not that Hoddle's side fell alongside Paraguay and Nigeria without reaching the last eight. With spectators and viewers able to see as many as five of this year's World Cup winners in the domestic game, plus a galaxy of more exotic stars, the feel-good factor is immune to reality.

Within individual clubs the mood can, of course, be different. Manchester United, of all teams, discovered last season that it was all too feel- good to be true.

The championship Old Trafford came to expect as of right went to Highbury, whose patrons will resume celebrations on Monday when Arsenal receive Nottingham Forest. The FA Cup followed, with not even the Youth Cup or the Pontins League as consolation.

An awful lot has happened to them since then, with the emphasis on awful. From David Beckham's unfairly acquired reputation as the man who lost England the World Cup through doubts about the wisdom of lavishing pounds 10.5m for Jaap Stam to the failure to sign Patrick Kluivert or Dwight Yorke, the bad news just kept coming.

So this afternoon's visit of Leicester is more than simply an opportunity to avenge a home defeat in January which, stunning as it was at the time, highlighted failings that were to surface increasingly as winter turned to spring. It is a chance to purge a summer of frustrations.

Catharsis will not come easily. Leicester are an obdurate bunch who take a Wimbledon-like pleasure in upsetting upstaging their supposed betters. They have not lost in their last three meetings with Alex Ferguson's men.

Apart from the tactical duel between Ferguson and Martin O'Neill, the game promises two fascinating individual battles. Andy Cole, who gave his response to United's search for a striker by scoring in the European Cup on Wednesday, will pit his pace against Frank Sinclair. If nothing else, Leicester's pounds 2m record recruit from Chelsea is fast.

At the other end, the collision of Stam and Emile Heskey may be measured on the Richter scale, though the Dutchman's real test will come when he faces quicker footed forwards of the kind who troubled him in France.

The second biggest gathering will be for the meeting of Everton and Aston Villa at a sold-out Goodison Park, an amazing show of loyalty by supporters of a club which for so long has done little to deserve it. Walter Smith has reputedly been shocked by the poverty of his inheritance in terms of personnel and is expected to overhaul the squad thoroughly.

Everton surely cannot perform as abjectly as when Villa won there 4-1 in March during John Gregory's managerial honeymoon. Talking of marriages, it will be intriguing to see which bench, if any, David Unsworth sits on. He is suspended anyway, but will probably still be in shorts because, as various managers keep sneering, his wife wears the trousers.

A true-blue Evertonian in the shape of the Southampton manager, David Jones, lies in wait for Liverpool at The Dell tomorrow. A warhorse and a whippet, Mark Hughes and Michael Owen, offer the best hope of goals, and if the Welsh veteran comes out on top then Gerard Houllier may be tempted to flee straight back across the Channel.

The French connection embodied so breathtakingly by Arsenal will be maintained by the pairing of Marcel Desailly and Franck Leboeuf in the Chelsea line- up at Coventry.

The last time they appeared together competitively was in the World Cup final. Dion Dublin and Darren Huckerby can only give them a harder time than Ronaldo and Bebeto. They won the corresponding fixture 3-2 last season.

Middlesbrough and Charlton face stern examinations of their credentials after being promoted behind Forest. Middlesbrough, having sold every season- ticket, receive a Leeds team whose away record was bettered only by the top two last time. Paul Gascoigne is doubtful with muscle trouble - if it is not kebabs it is seafood - while Lee Sharpe plays his first match in 15 months for Leeds.

Charlton will not be turning cartwheels over the absence from Newcastle's attack of Stephane Guivarc'h, the French striker Kenny Dalglish snapped up so eagerly before his ham-footed finishing this summer. Alan Shearer takes his first kick in anger since St Etienne, although opposite number Clive Mendonca is also a danger. He was toasted on Tyneside for his play- off hat-trick against Sunderland. A winner at St James' Park would be celebrated similarly on Wearside.

For all the exciting range of talents in the Premiership, Wimbledon's tussle with Tottenham is a reminder of one that got away. Jurgen Klinsmann scored four in the equivalent fixture in May. Selhurst Park will be poorer for his absence today.

Football, pages 28-31