Football: Foxes bring Boro back to reality

Rupert Metcalf on the weekend programme in the Premiership
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The Independent Online
They may have reached one cup final and they may be 90 minutes away from another, but for Middlesbrough fans this season will surely be regarded as a shambles if they lose their place in the Premiership come May.

The Coca-Cola Cup finalists and FA Cup semi-finalists are an uncomfortable four points adrift at the bottom of the table, and a further two points behind the fourth-from-bottom side. The mathematics of salvation will seem much easier if the Teesside team can reclaim the three points they have been docked by the Football Association - but no one at the Riverside Stadium can afford to rely upon that particular shove towards the escape route.

Today Middlesbrough go to Leicester City, their adversaries at Wembley in the Coca-Cola Cup final on 6 April. The folk from Filbert Street, unlike their visitors, can just about afford to drop a few points between now and then, but with their places to play for none of the Leicester side should be in the mood for relaxation.

Bryan Robson, the Middlesbrough player-manager, has had his share of difficulties with his foreign imports this season. One of them, Emerson, is doubtful with an ankle injury today but another, Fabrizio Ravanelli, seems happy at last.

On more than one occasion, the silver-haired striker's outbursts in the Italian media about his apparent desire to ply his trade anywhere but Teesside have caused a rumpus at the Riverside. Now, though, Ravanelli is singing a different tune.

In an interview in the Turin newspaper La Stampa which was topped by the headline "Ravanelli: I'll win two cups and stay", the former Juventus striker said: "I feel lighter now. I have a four-year contract with Middlesbrough, where I am really at home."

Ravanelli added that he was hopeful that his team would qualify for Europe by winning a domestic trophy. "I have really missed the European Wednesdays but I could rediscover them with Middlesbrough." he said. "This club has never won anything. If Ravanelli brings them a cup and also the title of top scorer, it will be as if I had won another European Cup."

Nottingham Forest, also in the relegation zone, are still trying to strengthen their squad. Having already bought Pierre van Hooijdonk from Celtic, they are returning to Parkhead to try and borrow Brian O'Neil, who can play in midfield or defence, for the rest of the season. The striker Ian Moore, who arrived this week from Tranmere for pounds 1m, will be on the bench today when Liverpool come to the City Ground.

The Anfield side, in second place in the Premiership, are right back in the title race following Manchester United's unexpected defeat at Sunderland last weekend and their own stunning 4-3 win over Newcastle two days later. Liverpool have the luxury of no major injury worries today.

Manchester United, now just one point in front, entertain Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford. Alex Ferguson, the home manager, welcomes back two players who have made rapid returns from injury. Nicky Butt is in line for his first start of the year at the heart of United's midfield as Roy Keane is still suspended, while Paul Scholes is fit just over a month after a cartilage operation.

On Thursday, in a very relaxed interview granted to BBC Radio Five Live at the Cheltenham Festival, Ferguson insisted that his side have only one rival (Liverpool) for the title. That probably caused a few raised eyebrows at third-placed Arsenal, who are only three points behind United. The Gunners will surely be aiming for maximum points at The Dell today against a Southampton side much depleted by suspensions and injuries.

Fourth-placed Newcastle, nine points behind United with a game in hand, might also wish to argue with Ferguson's assertion. The Magpies, who entertain Coventry, are still struggling to field a forward line. Les Ferdinand broke down 11 minutes after coming on as a substitute at Liverpool on Wednesday, and his aggravated hamstring injury is likely to ensure he misses out today and on Tuesday, when Newcastle go to Monaco for the second leg of their Uefa Cup quarter-final.

"I had reservations about Les coming back as quick as he did," Kenny Dalglish, Newcastle's manager, said. "He thought he was fit and you can't fault players for wanting to play, but sometimes you've got to miss one match to catch the next four or five. The greatest healer is time and we will wait to see if he's ready [for Monaco]."