Football: Easy-going Palace hold all the aces: Focus on First Division

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The Independent Online
BLACKBURN renew the forlorn chase this weekend and, win, lose or draw against Leeds United tomorrow, doubtless they will not alter their belief that Manchester United can be caught. Whether Middlesbrough believe they can still win the First Division championship is not known. Possibly because no one has bothered to ask.

Boro and Notts County are the Blackburn of the second grade, 13 points behind the leaders, Leicester and Crystal Palace, who meet in the game of the day at Selhurst Park. Yet while Rovers lie second, Middlesbrough are a distant 16th in a competition which remains wide open.

Unless Manchester United trip over themselves in the rush for the finishing line, the Premiership will be overshadowed by the strong counter-attraction of the First Division. Palace are the best placed going into today's games for they have played almost all of their rivals away from home and of their remaining 21 games 12 are at Selhurst Park, where they have lost just once.

Alan Smith has put the smile back on a club who suffered a miserable summer after the trauma of their final-day relegation and the subsequent departure of Steve Coppell, although he suspects that might be the reason why Palace have not pulled away from the pack as he thinks they should. To bring a harder, professional edge to his side he was delighted this week to have brought in Paul Stewart on loan from Liverpool.

'Paul has already said he has not known such a friendly club but I don't want to hear that,' Smith said. 'I'd be happy with a few more rucks from players because it might lead us to being less nice on the field.'

Stewart will partner Chris Armstrong in attack for the first of three successive home games. 'I am hoping this will set us off on a run and we can go over to Ireland next week to enjoy the Guinness and a spot of fishing and golf. The players keep saying we are doing all right and that I shouldn't keep on at them, but I want to go up automatically and be away on my holidays at the end of May, not watching the Cup final and worrying about the play-offs.'

A Selhurst stalemate could see Millwall go top for the first time by winning at West Brom; or Charlton, if they see off Barnsley at home; or Tranmere tomorrow when they visit this week's heroes in the FA Cup, Bolton. So far there have been 12 changes in pole position, which is reflected in an increase in attendances for the division of 13.7 per cent even though Newcastle and West Ham took their army of fans into the top flight.

After the sadness of Sir Matt Busby's death on Thursday Manchester United will be anxious to put on a good show in his memory at home to Everton. It is hard enough to make one visit to Old Trafford in a season like this, but for Mike Walker today is his second in seven weeks.

Alan Ball could wish for no more daunting a start with Southampton than to go to St James' Park and face a Newcastle side who have won all four of their games in 1994. Ossie Ardiles goes back to Swindon with Tottenham and takes two old boys, Colin Calderwood and David Kerslake, home with him. Micky Hazard would have made it three but injury keeps him out.