Football: Fatigue factor bedevils reds

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a bedraggled and weary England party that got to their beds on Thursday morning, their flight from Warsaw having been delayed five hours.

But for the players of Liverpool and Manchester United there was extra reason to feel jaded after a bruising European Championship qualifier against Poland: they would be playing again little more than 48 hours later.

Daft? Of course it is. Tired players suffer muscle injuries more readily and there is also the matter of the paying public, who would be furious if they knew they were going to see a lesser performance at the theatre yet are expected to fork out to do just that for football. But a combination of police and television demands could not be refused.

Merseyside Police insisted on the game kicking off by noon, and, because BSkyB wanted to screen the match live and United are playing in the Champions' League on Tuesday and could not be expected to turn out on Sunday, the match has been brought forward to 11.30am. It looked unfortunate scheduling when England's players were due to arrive at 1.30am on Thursday and more so when they did not touch down until 6.30am.

The only concession was that the England plane flew to Manchester first before going on to London but that will be small compensation for Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Phil Neville, who took part in Warsaw and are likely to be playing again today. It is hardly fitting either that one of the showpiece games of the season should be shoehorned into such an inconvenient slot.

Liverpool have not beaten United in any of their last six League encounters and normally would be rueing having to meet their great rivals with such a long injury list - if Jamie Redknapp fails to recover from an ankle injury only one of their first-choice midfield four will make it to the pitch - except that the European champions could be even more beleaguered.

The French defender Mickael Silvestre, who cost pounds 3.25m from Internazionale, and the Italian goalkeeper Massimo Taibi will make their debuts, the former against the club who also wanted to sign him. Silvestre chose United ahead of Liverpool in talks last week, one of the reasons being that he did not want to play at left-back. Ironically, Ferguson will ask Silvestre to play that role in an injury-hit emergency.

There was more bad news for United last night, when they learned that they had lost their appeal to Uefa, European football's ruling body, over the eligibility of Taibi to play in Champions' League. Raimond van der Gouw is now expected to play against Croatia Zagreb on Tuesday.

Elsewhere in today's United squad there is a hint of bare bones. Gary Neville and Roy Keane were handed back by England and the Republic of Ireland with long-term injuries and Denis Irwin is struggling, which, with other earlier casualties, leaves only three other senior defenders, Phil Neville, Jaap Stam and Henning Berg.

Sir Alex Ferguson has remained remarkably sanguine this week, so it was left to David O'Leary to lambast the schedule. He took his Leeds squad to Coventry a day early simply to get his players used to being together again. "For the last 10 or 11 days I've only had three or four players around the place," he said. "It's farcical trying to prepare for a game like this. It's no way to go into a match on a Saturday."

You suspect Darren Huckerby, who makes a quick return to Highfield Road after his pounds 4.5m transfer to Leeds, will be looking forward to the game, however, and there will be at least one old-age pensioner in London today for whom today's match could not come quickly enough.

Bobby Robson, 66, has his first match in charge of Newcastle and he could hardly have had a worse venue to launch a revival than Stamford Bridge, where unbeaten Chelsea lie in wait. By tonight you fear his words when he succeeded Ruud Gullit - "There's no panic, it is retrievable" - might be taking out their white sheets and rattling chains in preparation for a good haunting.

Newcastle are without a win all season, have taken just one point from a possible 18, conceding 18 goals on the way, and are second bottom. "I'll be giving the players a lot of instruction and guidance," Robson, who will be in charge of an English club team for the first time in 17 years, said. "And it's down to how they respond to that guidance. If we carry on playing in the same way, we'll get nothing, but we hope to improve performances and results."

Only Sheffield Wednesday are below Newcastle and a fascinating undercurrent of their game against Everton will be Benito Carbone's role, if any, in the game. The Italian walked out on the club at The Dell two weeks ago and returned on Monday having offered an apology to find he had to train with the youth squad. There is no truth in the rumour a taxi has been booked for immediately after the team is announced today.

Carbone and manager Danny Wilson clearly have a communication problem but that is one player. Wimbledon have, by Egil Olsen's admission, failed to understand his tactics on a team basis, which is why they meet Derby at Selhurst Park today having leaked 14 goals in six games.

The Norwegian has tried to introduce a zonal defence, which has not been a success, and yesterday he told supporters to blame him for the team's indifferent start. "It is my fault," he said. "What you have learned during 10 or 20 years, you can't change too fast. It has been more difficult than I expected." The players are probably too tired or too injured to listen.

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