Football: Gifted United aim to be first among equals: Joe Lovejoy compares the styles and strengths of the clubs chasing the Premier League title

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The Independent Online
FIRST versus second. Sky, with typical understatement, is billing it as 'Winner Takes All', which should do wonders for satellite sales in East Anglia, but the rest of us have no reason to crow. We have all been guilty of counting chickens to the exclusion of Canaries these past few months.

Because Manchester United and Aston Villa go into tomorrow's summit meeting at Old Trafford separated only by goal difference, the championship continues to be portrayed as a two- horse race, which plainly it is not.

Unfortunately for both the fancied runners, the early pacemakers, Norwich City, are refusing to do the decent thing, and the four points by which they trail the top two could be down to one this afternoon, with Oldham scarcely the most intimidating of visitors to Carrow Road.

The stamina with which they have hung in there, against the odds, playing some of the best football in the country, has earned Norwich the right to be regarded as genuine title contenders. Yes, they could win it, and they deserve to be taken seriously, having done so well on limited resources.

The odds, though, favour the two big city clubs, whose spending power gives them such an advantage in what Dave Bassett calls The League Handicap Chase.

Tomorrow's match will decide nothing, of course. 'Winner Takes All' is spurious hype of a sort more readily associated with boxing, and its need to put bums on seats to watch bums fight. On a more sensible level, what the Thriller with the Villa might do is provide one side with a psychological advantage worth far more than three points.

Both teams come to the game in need of a fillip after disappointments in midweek. It is hard to say which was the more surprising result - United losing to limpalong Oldham or Villa drawing 0-0 with their buccaneering soul-mates from Tottenham.

United's need of recovery and reassurance will be the greater, the 'Oh no, not again' factor dangerously pervasive at Old Trafford. It was this time last year that the wheels came off, with a 1-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest, and Alex Ferguson needs no reminding to beware the Ides of March.

Victory for Villa would do wonders for their self-belief, and also provide a searching examination of the mental fortitude, and form, which deserted United when the going got tough last season.

That one defeat was enough to turn swaggering champions-elect into nervous wrecks. Before it, they were unbeaten in 15 matches. After it, they won just three of their last 10 League games to stagger in four points behind Leeds United.

For what it is worth, United had lost one League game in 16, at Ipswich, before going down to Neil Adams's goal at Oldham on Tuesday.

Villa finished an unremarkable seventh last season, with 60 points to United's 78, since when both sides have made significant changes. Ron Atkinson, as is his wont, has been the busier manager in the transfer market, but then, to be fair, he had more to do.

Ferguson has been in charge at Old Trafford for well over six years, since succeeding Atkinson in 1986, and there is a growing feeling that if he has not got it right by now, he never will. He has spent pounds 17m, starting with Brian McClair and most recently on Eric Cantona, while recouping just pounds 5m, and for that sort of outlay directors expect a championship once in a while. Once every 26 years is not quite the ticket.

Atkinson knows all about the burden of Mancunian expectation. He won the FA Cup twice in his five years with United, but the League is the only prize they really care about, and third place, which was the best he could manage, sent him the way of Dave Sexton, Tommy Docherty, Frank O'Farrell and all the others who have striven, unsuccessfully, to emulate Busby and his beloved Babes.

Atkinson and United looked like a marriage made in heaven - flamboyant man, glamour club - but he gives the impression that he is happier for the divorce.

Villa are his raison d'etre now, he says. Smaller than United? History won't have it. Both have won the championship seven times, the FA Cup seven times and the European Cup once - and Villa's major successes are more recent.

For all that, they were in urgent need of revitalisation when Doug Ellis abandoned his experiment with Continental sophistication after just one season which had seen the avuncular Dr Jozef Venglos all but kill the patient with kindness. The good doctor was paid up and packed off after taking the runners- up he had inherited from Graham Taylor to 17th place.

Atkinson arrived from Sheffield Wednesday, amid much Yorkshire rancour, in the summer of '91, and hardly courted popularity by immediately selling the club's best player, David Platt, to Bari for pounds 5.5m.

He was soon forgiven. The Platt money funded a characteristic spending spree which has continued ever since. The great wheeler- dealer's turnover is now well past the pounds 20m mark but, unlike Ferguson, he is breaking even after nearly 30 six-figure deals.

Apart from the new England captain, Atkinson has sold Tony Cascarino ( pounds 1.1m), Ian Olney ( pounds 700,000), Gary Penrice ( pounds 625,000), Paul Mortimer ( pounds 450,000) and 10 others for fees between pounds 110,000 and pounds 350,000.

'I reckon we're just about balancing the books,' he says. 'The chairman reckons we're millions down, but I think he's still counting Trevor Ford and Gerry Hitchens.'

United, with a pounds 12m deficit on transfers, have the same number of points as Villa, who show a small profit before players' signing-on fees are taken into account. Put like that, the figures do Ferguson no favours, but net expenditure of pounds 2m per season is not ruinous for the best-supported club in the country, and they have had a decent return on their investment, winning the FA, League and Cup-Winners' Cups. The bottom line is that such sums are inconsequential compared with the fortune United could earn as champions.

Their chances? Better than even. They are stronger than last season, when only that fit of the vapours denied them, with deeper reserves than Villa. Or Norwich. Defence was never a problem. They conceded fewer goals than anyone last time, and are doing so again. Midfield was where they suffered by comparison with Leeds, and needed to improve. Ditto goalscoring - an art suddenly lost to the club that gave us Best, Law, Charlton et al.

Consistency, in selection as well as performance, has gone a long way towards curing United's midfield ills. A year ago it was perm any two, three or four from Robson, Ince, McClair, Webb, Ferguson, Phelan, Kanchelskis and Blackmore. Now, Robson's sciatic problem, which kept him out for six months, has allowed Ince to assert himself and blossom into an England must.

Ince and the ubiquitous McClair pick themselves at the hub of what is at last becoming a settled side, and Robson's renewed availability, warmly welcomed by Ferguson in midweek, may prove to be something of a mixed blessing if the manager feels compelled to pick him. The old warrior will probably be among the substitutes tomorrow.

Old Trafford appreciates stylish approach play, and Ince is as popular now as Robson and Webb were before him, but the forward line has long been the supporters' preoccupation, and it is here that the obvious improvement on last season is to be found.

Archaic term though it is, a forward line is what United have, with a centre-forward (Mark Hughes) supplied by two wingers (Sharpe and Giggs), and supported from the inside channels by McClair and Cantona.

Hughes, though still hardly prolific, is having one of his better seasons, with 13 goals in 32 appearances, but it is the input from others which has made the difference.

McClair, with eight in 31 games, is down on last year, but Giggs and Cantona have more than compensated for the Scot's shortfall, contributing handsomely, in every sense.

Giggs, a year older, and better, has scored nine times in 31 appearances, compared with seven in the whole of last season, and Cantona, with six in 11 League matches, is the club's leading scorer if his eight for Leeds are taken into account.

Bare statistics, of course, cannot do justice to the near- extinct gifts these two are propagating in the domestic game. Both would be welcomed with open arms by, and completely at home in, the championship side of '67.

The Best - incomparable George - identifies with their artistry and senses in both a kindred spirit, and among the red army there can be no higher praise.

Apart from the lovely goals they are scoring themselves, their imagination, dexterity and sleight of foot regularly create openings for others where there should be none. The virtuosity of these dancing partners, who can confound entire defences at the drop of a shoulder, gives United the edge over all the rest - Villa included.

If Cantona's recruitment from Leeds was Ferguson's masterstroke, Atkinson has also had his moments. That the Villa defence stands comparison with United's is not just because of the enduring excellence of Paul McGrath. The Irishman's rugged centre-back partner, Shaun Teale, is the team's unsung hero, and his manager's shrewdest signing at pounds 350,000.

The man himself offers Earl Barrett - rather more expensive at pounds 1.7m - as his player of the season, and England's next right-back.

Villa's parity extends to midfield, where their ferret, Kevin Richardson, has been another bargain at pounds 450,000. Garry Parker is not the quickest, but nobody passes the ball better, and Ray Houghton is still perpetual motion at an age - 31 - when Liverpool saw fit to pension him off.

It is only in attack that Villa are second best. The return of Dalian Atkinson, scorer of 13 goals in 25 appearances, would go some way towards balancing the scales, but stomach surgery has removed him from contention for the forseeable future, leaving Dean Saunders with inadequate support.

Villa's run-in is the tougher of the two, with problematic away games at Norwich, Nottingham Forest, Arsenal, Blackburn and Queen's Park Rangers, and they may have to settle for second place.

Norwich, incidentally, entertain Villa and United in successive home matches, on 24 March and 3 April. Six points from those two, and unfancied winners might well take all.

(Photograph omitted)

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