Football: Graham's credentials test

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The Independent Online
BY THE TIME David O'Leary returns to Highbury for the first time as a manager with his in-form Leeds team tomorrow, Arsenal's players will hope to have recaptured some of the form and fitness that carried them to fever pitch and beyond last season. But before George Graham's last two teams meet, the spotlight in the capital turns towards his present one, Tottenham, who play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge today in a fixture that should mean more than just local politics.

George Graham's Tottenham may still sound as incongruous to Londoners as Wimbledon Football Club but, to no one's great surprise, the erstwhile Arsenal autocrat is beginning to steer their great rivals away from trouble. With every game that passes, Graham's credentials take on a more lillywhite hue as the Highbury red pales.

This afternoon he is back at another of his old clubs, and although Spurs will be keen to record their first Premiership victory over Chelsea at the 13th attempt, simply avoiding defeat will represent another significant step in the rehabilitation process.

Chelsea, of course, have grander designs following the defeat of leaders Aston Villa and the impressive showing at Old Trafford. Gianluca Vialli's team has not lost in the Premiership since the opening day of the season, against Coventry, and if Gianfranco Zola's modesty would permit him he would tell you that was the only League game he ha s not started. Zola's form, like his haircut, is back to its very best after the distinctly dodgy spell last season that cost him his place in the World Cup, and his equalising goal on Wednesday night bore all the hallmarks of a former Footballer of the Year.

Manchester United, like Chelsea, are in the middle of a tough programme and today's visit of fifth-placed Middlesbrough is probably not what Alex Ferguson needs right now. Paul Gascoigne's suspension ensures that the mutual-admiration society of Manchester United past and present will take centre-stage with Gary Pallister, the most medalled of all United players, guaranteed a warm welcome on his return.

Going back to Old Trafford may be nothing new to Bryan Robson but taking such a formidable-looking Middlesbrough team with him certainly is, and Ferguson will be expecting no favours from a manager who is still favourite to take over from him at Old Trafford when he finally calls it a day.

If Robson has a serious rival in that race it could be Brian Kidd, for whom the reality of life at the bottom should make its mark today at Nottingham Forest - if it has not already. Kidd's Blackburn and Forest are among a group of five clubs beginning to lose touch with the Premiership pack, so today would not be a good time for Blackburn to concede their first goal under their new manager, who will have Brian McClair by his side for the first time.

Whatever the outcome at the City Ground, the eyes of all concerned will be on the results from Highfield Road and the Dell, where supporters of Coventry and Southampton are already bracing themselves for a return to the relegation front-line after one season of mid-table respite. While Coventry will be optimistic about the visit of inconsistent Derby County, Dave Jones will doubtless be dreading the effect that Wimbledon might have on the morale of fragile Southampton.

Jones and all the managers at the bottom will be clinging to the belief that, usually, at least one club in trouble half-way through the season puts on a spurt after Christmas, and those in the next tier will be only too conscious that the reverse can also apply. What price Liverpool to slide all the way? Sheffield Wednesday, one defeat in eight games, should provide a reasonable gauge of the Reds' progress under Gerard Houllier at Anfield this afternoon, where the Koppites will scrutinise the attitude of their players as much as willing them to win after three defeats in a row.

Newcastle and Leicester are permanently stationed at the crossroads these days, albeit under managers who have proved themselves in the Premiership. They meet at St James' Park, where the locals are still waiting for a glimpse of the new Alan Shearer-Duncan Ferguson goal machine they were promised; and Everton visit West Ham, where David Unsworth seems sure to come in for a good-humoured, East End character assassination.