Football: Collymore on trial as Villa test self-belief

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The Independent Online
AS THE qualifiers begin to emerge from the Champions' League in Europe, a would-be champions' league is ready to sort the contenders from the pretenders on the domestic front. Between this weekend and Winterval, as the politically correct council on Aston Villa's home patch have renamed the festive season, the six-pointers come thick and fast in the race for the Premiership title.

For Villa, leading by three points, today's short hop to Nottingham Forest is a test of their mettle after losing their unbeaten record to Liverpool. But it is also the prelude to a sequence which pits them against Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal - their three closest pursuers - in the space of nine days. Another setback could blow a huge hole in their self-belief.

Stan Collymore is likely to retain his place in Villa's attack against another of his old clubs, despite the outrage over his foul on the Liverpool defender Steve Harkness. The treatment he receives, from the crowd and from former colleagues with whom he was reputedly about as popular as Pierre Van Hooijdonk is now, will provide a test of temperament he can ill-afford to fail.

Collymore's presence will at least take the heat off Van Hooijdonk. For all the controversy surrounding the pair, they boast a solitary goal apiece in the League, against Dion Dublin's seven in three matches for Villa. But for a marginal offside decision and a fine penalty save, Dublin would have had a hat-trick of hat-tricks, and Forest's fallibility - they last won in August - offers the prospect of further plunder.

Manchester United and Chelsea, who tangle twice next month, both face potentially awkward assignments. United, having come through their Catalan inquisition relatively unscathed, will be grateful for the extra day's rest before playing host to fifth-placed Leeds tomorrow.

Although there will be no one of Rivaldo's class in Leeds' line-up, a single defeat in 14 Premiership fixtures suggests a certain obduracy. David O'Leary is unbeaten in the League since being confirmed as manager, and his team will not lack confidence after beating Liverpool in their previous away game.

Leeds' record at Old Trafford is almost as bad as it was at Anfield; their only win in 12 visits came in 1981 and they have not scored in the last six. However, it should be instructive to compare the young players O'Leary has championed, especially Jonathon Woodgate and Alan Smith, with Alex Ferguson's home-grown crop.

Chelsea will under-estimate Sheffield Wednesday at their peril today, notwithstanding an 18-match run without defeat. Wednesday are the only club to have beaten both United and Arsenal and have drawn four of their last five at Stamford Bridge.

Yet a more businesslike streak is evident in Chelsea under Gianluca Vialli's managership. They have already taken points on five grounds on which they lost last season, and the Italian will stress the need to be ruthless with a Wednesday side who have gained just four points away from home.

Arsenal's exalted position can not disguise worrying weaknesses as they prepare to receive Middlesbrough tomorrow. Not surprisingly, given Arsene Wenger's reluctance to buy a replacement for Ian Wright, the Double winners have scored fewer goals than anybody in the top half of the table. Indeed Boro's Hamilton Ricard has as many as Nicolas Anelka, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars put together.

Highbury still boasts the meanest defence, though the legendary back line has now been diminished by the injuries sustained by Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn in the bruising battle with Lens. Nearly 60 years have passed since Boro won at Arsenal, but circumstances may be conspiring to end their wait.

When Liverpool and Blackburn drew 0-0 on Merseyside in January, Roy Evans and Roy Hodgson still harboured hopes of the championship. Reconvening under the "new" management of Gerard Houllier and Tony Parkes, the clubs lie ninth and 20th respectively.

Two autumns ago, early in the third of Parkes' four spells as caretaker- manager, Blackburn began the climb from bottom place with a 3-0 rout of Liverpool. Unless he effects a similar transformation - a task made tougher today by Houllier's need to avoid a fourth consecutive home defeat - they risk being cut adrift.

Duncan Ferguson begins life as Alan Shearer's pounds 7m partner or replacement (depending on who you believe) in Newcastle's attack against Wimbledon's strangely short defence. Ferguson feels he will be at home in a region famous for pigeon-fancying; Tyneside has a fancy for a centre-forward who can soar like a bird. He may, nevertheless, need to home in on goal more often for the relationship to be mutually satisfying.