Football: Ferguson ready to reload his big guns for Sunderland test

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a sign of the times on Sunday when Manchester United's programme listed forthcoming fixtures. The date printed was not next week, or even the week after, but more than a month away, when the treble-winners' League campaign resumes against Arsenal. The Premiership? More like a filler between world and European matches.

Tonight's game at the Stadium of Light will be United's last before they fly to the so-called World Club Championship, and if the Football Association and Fifa, the game's world governing body, are excited by this nonsense in Brazil, the team he put out against Bradford City on Boxing Day suggested where Sir Alex Ferguson's priorities lie. The fixture against Sunderland in the Premiership is a far more important item on his agenda.

Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole were given only half an hour against Bradford while Ryan Giggs and David Beckham were rested as a precaution. All four are likely to play tonight, with only Beckham's hamstring strain causing concern.

United are second and Sunderland fourth, a lofty position for a team who were promoted only last season, but Sir Alex is not surprised. "They've got all the ingredients," he said. "There's the new stadium which gives them a platform, it's a club with history and they have very passionate support. You don't go to the North-east and miss out on atmosphere, it's always there."

While United were travelling north, their ground staff were beginning work on repairing the Old Trafford pitch which has deteriorated alarmingly. It has been relaid four times and patched up repeatedly since the summer of 1998 but the new high stands, which cut out the sunlight, and the large amount of rain that has fallen in the Manchester area have reduced the surface to a mudheap.

"It slows our game down and sometimes when you need that quickness of pass in the last third of the pitch the ball goes dead," the manager said.

His Sunderland counterpart, Peter Reid, will not take any risks with hamstring victim Kevin Phillips. The England striker missed his first game of the season at Everton, and Sunderland crashed 5-0, but Reid will proceed with caution. "If there's any danger, any danger at all and he's not quite right I won't play him against United," Reid said.

The Leeds United manager, David O'Leary, may believe his young side will eventually "bottle it" in the title race - though that may simply be psychological manipulation - but one of his midfield linchpins, Stephen McPhail, was the picture of calmness in advance of today's crucial visit to Highbury.

"We don't fear anyone in the world," McPhail said. "Arsenal will be the biggest game of our season so far and we know we're going to have to get something out of it to keep up our title hopes."

The Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira makes his comeback with his manager, Arsene Wenger, warning him that he must stay calm. Vieira will return after a seven-match absence from domestic action after completing his latest FA ban for spitting at the West Ham defender Neil Ruddock. Wenger said: "When you have an important player like Vieira out of the side and you lose, everybody says, `it's because he wasn't playing'. I think we have done well without him - but I am happy he is back because he is a winner."

While most managers are campaigning for a winter break, Gerard Houllier, whose Liverpool side entertain Wimbledon, is happy to play through the festive season. "Wimbledon is another big, physical test just two days after Newcastle," he said. "It's the only country where we do that, but I enjoy it very much. It's nice to have football at Christmas. The stadiums are full and the players give their all."

Down at the other end of the division, Watford's manager, Graham Taylor, was forced to prepare his Premiership strugglers in a local park for the Bank Holiday campaign, which resumes at home to Southampton. Watford, one from bottom after the 4-0 Boxing Day defeat at Tottenham - their 14th consecutive game without a win - do not possess a training centre of their own. And the sports ground facilities they normally rent are not available over Christmas and New Year.