Football: European lapse a boon for United: Clive White on the pick of today's Premiership games

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The Independent Online
AS if it was not enough that Manchester United no longer have Europe to distract them from the domestic prizes, thereby almost dispelling hopes of a more competitive Premiership, they have the added help today of playing against a team who probably will be distracted by Continental considerations.

Norwich are bound to be preoccupied with thoughts of their historic visit to the San Siro next week and how they can overturn a1-0 deficit against Internazionale in the third round of the Uefa Cup. While opposition minds are elsewhere, expect United to plunder and maintain if not increase their 14-point lead at the head of affairs.

However blessed United are at handling battles on a broad front, it certainly seems beyond the capabilities, or perhaps more accurately the resources, of the Norfolk side, who since their famous victory over Bayern Munich last month have fallen in the Coca-Cola Cup and slipped from second to seventh in the League.

Whatever harm Norwich's involvement abroad may be doing to their domestic ambitions it is doing wonders for the personal standing of Mike Walker, who, it is rumoured, upon Norwich's removal from the Uefa Cup will be made an offer to manage Atletico Madrid.

Surprisingly, for someone so level-headed, Walker suggested yesterday he would consider such an offer seriously. 'It's not the kind of opportunity you would pass up,' he said. It is, if it comes from Jesus Gil, the Spanish club's notoriously fickle president.

At least Norwich should get some practice in at Old Trafford in trying to cope with one hand tied behind their back. They will be without three of their finest players through suspension against the Milanese and injuries today rule out Ian Crook and John Polston.

Arsenal's removal from the Coca- Cola Cup in midweek could prove to be a blessing in disguise. The visit of third-placed Arsenal to Highfield Road provides a swift comparison with United, who won there 1-0 last Saturday. With a goal aggregate of 5-2 in their eight away League fixtures this season they are still unlikely to improve much on United's performance.

For George Graham the time of now-or-never in this particular Premiership is fast approaching. 'Nobody has shown consistency apart from them (United), and unless a team does put a good run together quickly they won't be caught.'

Even Leeds, lying second, will need to find a higher gear if they are to start making inroads into United's lead. It is a reflection on the high level of performance of Alex Ferguson's side that Leeds' recent form of five draws in their last seven games, albeit four of them achieved away from home, is simply just not good enough if they intend to mount a serious challenge against these champions. At least United's down-in-the- mouth city cousins should not slow Leeds' progress at Elland Road today.

Paul Gascoigne misses Lazio's match against Atalanta tomorrow. Dino Zoff, the Italian club's coach, was apparently not impressed when Gascoigne, still recovering from tendinitis, played in a practice match during the week.

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