Football: Football: Dickens of a task for Swindon: Guy Hodgson on the Premiership programme

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AS Charles Dickens would have put it: it was the worst of teams, it was the best of teams. At Swindon Town today they will have those frozen grins and never-say-die expressions which imply hope but not too much of it. After all the ball bounces off a coconut and hits the thrower in the eye occasionally, doesn't it?

Swindon, the team everyone likes because everyone beats them, will meet Manchester United, who only lose in League matches to Chelsea, in a mismatch. Swindon shipped seven goals at Newcastle last week, while United have rattled up 14 in their last five outings.

And yet. And yet. Football in this country has not reached the stage where any match is a foregone conclusion; it is only 11 against 11; there have been greater upsets in the FA Cup this season alone. You get the gist of Swindon manager John Gorman's team talk.

Certainly Lawrie Sanchez, Gorman's latest charge after a free transfer from Wimbledon, had the upbeat manner befitting a man whose goal caused one of the great Cup final upsets.

'I've seen Swindon play and they are a good team . . . and a little change sometimes helps,' the 34-year-old midfield player, who scored the goal that beat Liverpool at Wembley six years ago, said. 'It happened when Brian Kilcline came here, I think they won three out of the four games up until he was injured. A new face can often give a little impetus to everybody.'

Even so Swindon would seem to need the impetus of a Concorde engine to stop United assuming a 10-point lead at the the top of the Premiership, which will hardly make happy reading for second-placed Blackburn, who do not meet Sheffield Wednesday until tomorrow.

Another team barring the way to a United domestic treble, their Coca-Cola Cup final opponents Aston Villa, are struggling eight days before their Wembley meeting.

Long-term Villa watchers would have no doubt that Dalian Atkinson was among the targets when their manager Ron Atkinson lambasted his team last week for lack of effort. But Atkinson, the player, misses today's match against Oldham along with Andy Townsend (knee) and Tony Daley (hamstring), with all three doubtful for the final. All good news for Oldham, of course, whose two games in hand on their fellow strugglers will look all the more valuable today if they win.

The crunch match at the bottom, however, will take place at Maine Road where Manchester City meet Sheffield United. Dave Bassett, the manager of the visitors, said games were running out for his team when they drew 1-1 with Queen's Park Rangers on Wednesday, but no one is counting the opportunities more closely than Brian Horton.

The City manager has been on trial ever since Francis Lee took over as chairman and you suspect the verdict will not be favourable if the team lose today.

Hard times, as someone might write.