Football: Fit Shearer sends the right signal

Mike Rowbottom looks forward to the weekend's Premiership action
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At the end of what has been an outstanding year for him, Alan Shearer is even playing a blinder with his injuries.

The Newcastle and England captain is ready to return to action for the Premiership leaders at Chelsea today, just four weeks after a groin injury which his surgeon advised him would require at least six weeks of recovery. "I'm definitely 100 per cent fit," he said yesterday. Perhaps he could have done without the anaesthetic as well.

Shearer's return will be hugely welcome to a side which will be without their leading scorer, Les Ferdinand -recovering from a cheekbone operation - for several weeks. It may not be so welcome for Faustino Asprilla.

The Colombian has started four of the five games since Shearer's operation but Peter Beardsley, with four goals in the last three games, looks unlikely to be displaced.

However it turns out, such calculations are all part of the squad consciousness which has to be developed by any club with aspirations to high-level success.

The point was well made yesterday - inevitably - by the Chelsea manager, Ruud Gullit, who has had run-ins recently with disaffected players.

"Chelsea is changing, like all the top clubs," said Gullit, who sold the striker John Spencer to Queen's Park Rangers this week and put two others, Mark Stein and Gavin Peacock, out on loan. "That means a lot of players in the squad, and that nobody is guaranteed a place in the team.

"That's the reality. Some players can cope with it, but if they don't want to they've made that decision. If you look at Manchester United, with Karel Poborsky and Jordi Cruyff, or Newcastle with Faustino Asprilla and Keith Gillespie, it's the same situation."

In Manchester United's case, the situation is unusual today as they travel to meet a Middlesbrough side managed by their former captain, Bryan Robson.

Injuries from the midweek defeat by Juventus have forced Alex Ferguson to fill his squad with some unfamiliar names - Chris Casper, Ben Thornley, Terry Cooke, Michael Clegg and Ronnie Wallwork. He has also had to recall the full-back John O'Kane from loan at Bury.

United, whose defeat of Arsenal last week ended a run of three Premiership defeats, badly need to settle themselves. But so do Middlesbrough, still recovering from Emerson's prolonged break, and still discomfited by the admiring comments Fabrizio Ravanelli made recently to the Italian press about today's opponents.

"It is a big game for everyone, the players, the fans, and myself, and a win could turn the season around for us," Robson said.

Arsenal, who felt they were unfortunate to gain nothing at Old Trafford, will seek tangible consolation at Highbury tomorrow against a Tottenham side which is poised to secure the services of the Norwegian striker Steffen Iversen for a fee reputed to be around pounds 3m.

"Perhaps it will be better if we can forget that it is Tottenham we are playing,'' Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said. ``I understand of course that the pride between the two sets of fans is a bit more than usual for this game but we have to concern ourselves with more than just a derby match."

Southampton, whose season was turned on its head last Saturday with a 7-1 defeat at Everton - their heaviest for 20 years - have the opportunity to point themselves back in the right direction at home to a Leeds side which is currently in free fall.

"It's no good people mulling over what happened," said the Southampton manager, Graeme Souness. "The big thing in life is how you react to a punch on the nose."

The Everton forward Duncan Ferguson, who missed the Southampton goalfest through injury, is hoping to start against Leicester at Filbert Street after playing most of the midweek draw against Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Stan Collymore is hoping to fill Steve McManaman's role against Wimbledon should the England winger be sidelined with a hamstring injury.