Football: Fowler's Highbury stadium tour

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The Independent Online
YOU CAN say what you like about the fixture computer, there is clearly a chip in there marked "mischievous sense of humour". Most weeks it throws up at least one game with undertones but today it has surpassed itself. The bytes are grinning like a toothpaste advertisement.

Just a normal day? Think again. Robbie Fowler going to Arsenal is enough to keep one's wry muscles in focus but in addition Martin O'Neill is going to a club he turned down, David Pleat revisits Hillsborough and Ron Atkinson's past and possible future will meet at Highfield Road. Oh, and there is the matter of Ruud Gullit playing host to Chelsea.

That is enough coincidences to make a detective novel totally implausible, but anything that can accommodate bizarre concepts such as the Nottingham Forest board, holidays for overworked (sic) goalkeepers, pounds 35,000-a-week wages and someone called the Football Association compliance officer is unlikely to have much grasp on reality.

Certainly there is a sense of the surreal about Fowler's position today. All week he has been denying reports linking him to Arsenal, so where does he get the chance to check out the facilities? That's right: Highbury. Someone is trying to tell him something.

The emphasis was always going to be on strikers (and before Arsene Wenger's briefs get twitchy we are talking scorers not punchers), because Arsenal have fewer goals than any other team in the top 10 and it is no secret they are searching for someone. Cue Fowler who, happily enough, has just bought a property in north London.

To add a twist to the tale, Fowler is not guaranteed a place in Liverpool's starting line-up today, which goes to show what substitutes can cost these days. And it can be assumed a place on the bench is unlikely to help the contract talks at Anfield.

Arsenal, meanwhile, welcome Nicolas Anelka, who must wonder what the fuss is about considering he has scored 12 League goals with the absent Dennis Bergkamp. Whichever strike force prevails it will sully a run, because both sides have three consecutive League victories. Liverpool, it should be remembered, were the only team to complete the double over the Double-winners last season.

While that will add spice at Highbury, the passions will need nothing at St James' Park where Newcastle versus Chelsea represents Gullit's first meeting with the club that sacked him 11 months ago.

At the time Chelsea's chairman, Ken Bates, showed typical diplomacy by saying: "We are not prepared to pay a huge slice of our budget for a part- time playboy." It is probably safe to say that while his supporters cherish wins over Sunderland, Gullit would prefer to crush second-placed Chelsea.

The Londoners could go top, although it would involve their winning at Newcastle and Aston Villa drawing, or worse, at Middlesbrough. A few weeks ago the latter would have seemed likely but since Boro lost their 14-month unbeaten home record to Liverpool they have had three consecutive defeats.

At Goodison, Everton supporters can watch a side managed by O'Neill with the uneasy feeling that it might have been their own. He was the first choice as replacement for Howard Kendall in the summer but when he preferred to stay at Leicester, Walter Smith was appointed. While no one can knock the sense he brought with him from Glasgow some might like a few frills too. In the home of the 0-0 draw, it goes without saying today's game will be tight.

Which is not how you could describe Tottenham, who arrive at Hillsborough fresh from a 5-3 FA Cup win over Watford, which you would think would be an anathema for George Graham. Add four goals in the previous game to David Ginola's resurgence and White Hart Lane is undergoing a culture- shock, as Scrooge undergoes his transformation into Happy Larry.

Pleat, Tottenham's director of football, will also be entitled to a small smile himself when he goes back to the club that sacked him last season. After all, he had bought and primed a time-bomb called Paulo Di Canio before he left.

Elsewhere, Southampton versus Charlton will not clarify the relegation issues, managerless Forest will travel to fellow strugglers Coventry and Brian Kidd's unbeaten run as Blackburn manager will face its stiffest test against Leeds.

Kidd, of course, spent many years avoiding being No 1, so who was named manager of the month yesterday? Not only the fixture computer has a sense of paradox.

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