FOOTBALL : Ferguson leaves it to Hughes

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The Independent Online
Mark Hughes may not after all be on his way from Old Trafford as soon as he is fit. Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's manager, has told the Welsh international that it is up to him whether he wants to remain at the club.

Ferguson, whose side could go top of the Premiership summit by winning at Crystal Palace tonight, has admitted that Eric Cantona's dream of forming a three-pronged attack with Hughes and the £7million signing, Andy Cole, is a tempting prospect.

"It would be an incredible partnership," Cantona said. "I hope we can all be good together."

But Ferguson, who might already have bidden farewell to his loyal Welsh striker, probably to Everton, had he not gashed his knee against Newcastle, fears it might not be practical.

"We could perhaps play Cole and Hughes together, with Cantona playing off the front two," he said. "But then we would probably have to leave out a winger and a lot of our success has been based on wide players stretching the opposition."

But he does not rule out a continuing role for Hughes at Old Trafford. "I wouldn't want to embarrass Mark Hughes by leaving him out more than he is used to because he is a great player and has served this club nobly. At the end of the day it will be up to him to decide what he wants to do, bearing in mind that we have signed a young centre-forward because I have to plan for the future.

"At the moment we are waiting for Mark to get fit again, then we can sit down and talk about what's best for him and the club."

Cole and Cantona will be trying to establish an understanding at Selhurst Park, where David May will also have an opportunity to raise his stock at the club when he plays at centre-half in place of the suspended Steve Bruce.

A repeat of United's 3-0 victory over Palace in November would put United a point clear of Blackburn, though Rovers will have two games in hand.

Palace have won only once in their last 11 league games, beating Leicester City 2-0, and now only goal difference is keeping Palace out of the bottom four. However, their manager, Alan Smith, is convinced his squad has the character to stay up.

"We need three points and I'm looking for a big performance from my players," he said.

There will be plenty at stake at St James' Park, too, where two clubs chasing a place in Europe next season meet. Newcastle were flying in the Premiership earlier in the season but they now need to halt a poor run of form. Their manager Kevin Keegan, back from his spying mission to the Netherlands as he tries to spend his Cole cash, will give his £1m signing, Keith Gillespie, a full debut as the side seeks a first win in seven games.

They will be without John Beresford for up to a month with a hamstring injury, while Darren Peacock and Robert Lee are doubtful. With an FA Cup tie against Swansea City coming up, neither of them is likely to be risked so Barry Venison will probably switch into the back four with Paul Bracewell returning to midfield.

Newcastle face Everton in eight days' time, making this a testing time for the Magpies. "This is an absolutely crucial week for us. We must get six points and progress in the cup to give our season a boost," Keegan said.

Wimbledon have taken 14 points from the last 18 to stand eighth in the table and in position to make a move for a European place but they will be without Alan Reeves and their veteran striker Mick Harford, who are suspended.

In Tottenham's match away to Aston Villa, the former Wimbledon forward, John Fashanu, will meet Gary Mabbutt on the pitch for the first time since their notorious collision 14 months ago. Darren Anderton, Nicky Barmby and David Howells all face fitness tests before the Tottenham manager, Gerry Francis, can name his team. The postponement of Saturday's home game with Manchester City has helped all three but Spurs will still be without striker Ronny Rosenthal, who has a knee ligament injury. Anderton and Barmby have ankle injuries while Howells has a hamstring strain.

Mark Robins, the former Old Trafford striker, will go back to Manchester tonight to make his debut for his new club, Leicester City, at Maine Road.

Leicester's manager, Mark McGhee, whose side are five points adrift at the bottom, is still searching for his first victory after six games as manager - though he did pick up a draw against Manchester United at Christmas.

"We obviously need wins in our position but if we can take anything at all from this match it could be the launch pad to start a recovery," McGhee said. "We need to take 30 points from the remaining games. If we take those, I believe we will stay up."

With last Saturday's game against Leeds postponed because of a waterlogged pitch, Leicester will again be without the defenders Jimmy Willis and Mike Whitlow, who complete their two-match suspensions.

Their opponents Manchester City will benefit from last weekend's White Hart Lane washout with their goalkeeper Andy Dibble, Gary Flitcroft and Ian Brightwell all available. All three have recovered from injury and illness that would have ruled them out of the game at Tottenham as City, after three successive league draws, look for a victory that would move them further into the middle of the table.

Phil Neal, Coventry City's manager, will have Peter Ndlovu available for the first of two successive games with Norwich on which their season could turn. Coventry, now in the bottom four, go to Carrow Road tonight and face the Canaries at home in the FA Cup on Saturday.

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