Football: Ferguson savours Roses battle

HIGH NOON at Old Trafford today, when an uncommonly high number of Englishmen on the pitch and, doubtless, a few mad dogs on and off it will go out in the midday sun, should provide an early indication of whether Leeds United are capable of graduating from their unlikely status as a side who make opposing supporters purr to one with realistic championship prospects.

The Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson has described Leeds as "the emerging team", his use of the definite article suggesting he believes they could be the genuine article. In which case, this traditionally thorny Roses battle may prove the first six-pointer in the Premiership title race.

Premature as such labels may seem, the game is of critical importance to both managers. For Sir Alex it represents the first opportunity since the Treble to measure his players' hunger against strong opposition in a competitive context.

Similarly, the home of Matt Busby's original "Babes" is the ideal setting for David O'Leary to gauge the progress of his "Babies", and the extent to which Michael Duberry, Danny Mills, Michael Bridges and now Darren Huckerby are likely to accelerate it. It may be early doors, as Ferguson's predecessor would say, but Leeds look better equipped to attack United on their own patch than at any time since Don Revie's day.

O'Leary might have more circumspect ideas - you can take the man out of Arsenal, but you can't etc - though it would run counter to his entire approach since succeeding George Graham if he set out merely to spoil.

That said, this fixture tends to be as attritional as they come. Leeds must earn the right to play by countering the power of Roy Keane and matching the prodigious work-rate of all around him. When they last won at Old Trafford, with Brian Flynn's goal in 1981, several of the present squad really were little more than babies.

One thing is for certain. The assistance which Leeds' defeat of Arsenal in May rendered to United's cause will do nothing to enhance their reception, especially if their followers persist with those shaming taunts about the Munich disaster.

Even with only a week gone, the League table shows five of last season's top six among the half-dozen pacesetters. Arsenal sit where they finished in the spring, just behind the leaders, and will dislodge Aston Villa from their perch (at least until Villa face West Ham on Monday) if their first visit to Sunderland's Stadium of Light delivers maximum points today.

The First Division champions are reinforced by a colony of discharged Gunners, Steve Bould and Stefan Schwarz having joined Niall Quinn on Wearside. The Swede's ball-holding ability will be vital if they are not to be outclassed by a side in which, ominously for Bould and co, Dennis Bergkamp has shown more appetite for the fray in the first two matches than he did over the first two months after a sapping World Cup.

Chelsea have certainly hit the ground running, with Didier Deschamps' refusal to waste possession suggesting that he may prove the summer's outstanding import. However, Leicester at Filbert Street threatens a far more searching test of their credentials than the home wins over Sunderland and Skonto Riga.

Martin O'Neill's workaholic team would have drawn at Highbury but for Frank Sinclair's folly, and Deschamps will need all his skill in tight situations to escape the waspish attentions of Neil Lennon and Muzzy Izzet.

The first League meeting in 11 years of Liverpool and Watford - champions and runners-up respectively in 1983 - finds the promoted Hertfordshire outfit seeking their first-ever point at Anfield and their first this season. The contrast between the clubs is starker than ever, Gerard Houllier investing pounds 25m on foreign talent during the summer compared with Graham Taylor's clutch of Bosman free transfers.

Yet recent years have found Liverpool's team spirit wanting in the face of resolute, unpretentious visitors; one recalls Barnsley winning there and Charlton drawing 3-3 last autumn. With his midfield anchor, the German international Dietmar Hamann, indisposed, it will be instructive to observe whether Houllier's new, polyglot band maintain their unity if Watford can defend in a more disciplined fashion than they have so far.

For the other Premiership newcomers, Bradford City, top-flight fixtures at Valley Parade (I hereby refuse to call it the Bradford & Bingley Stadium) have come around even less frequently than total eclipses. The last was against Arsenal in 1922, although only 12 months earlier both City and Bradford Park Avenue held places among the elite.

The wool city finally emerges from the footballing shadows with the visit of Sheffield Wednesday, a piece of scheduling which could benefit the hosts given the South Yorkshire side's supine start.

Strange to reflect that Bradford's Paul Jewell, the most inexperienced and least recognisable of the 20 Premiership managers, could be savouring a 100 per cent start tonight while Ruud Gullit finds himself the early frontrunner in the sack race.

The dreadlocked one takes his expensively rebuilt Newcastle to Southampton in search of their opening point and, one trusts, will be rather less ready to point the finger at others if it all goes hair-shaped again.