Football: Gregory needs victory in a deadly situation

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The Independent Online
FOR ASTON Villa and John Gregory, who rang in the new year last January with the claret and blue flag fluttering hopefully at the Premiership summit, 1999 has become the year of slipping dangerously.

Villa go to Goodison Park today urgently needing to take Everton's unbeaten home record, not only to stop themselves free-falling down the table but also, perhaps, to convince the chairman, Doug Ellis, that he should keep faith with Gregory.

Twelve months ago this weekend, the Villa manager was hoping for a positive reaction to his team's first League defeat after the best start in the club's history. For a while he got it, but since the start of the year Villa have lost 17 and won just nine of their 33 Premiership games.

That is relegation form, and the man they call "Deadly" is not renowned for his tolerance. Given that Ellis is more at home with a balance sheet than a team sheet, he will be as unhappy that several of Gregory's major signings are not first choices as he is with the current run of two points from seven matches.

It takes a curious kind of courage to make strenuous efforts to sign Benito Carbone and then leave him on the bench, as Gregory did at Coventry on Monday. His thinly veiled criticism of Ugo Ehiogu's desire for the fray showed that his refreshing refusal to hide behind platitudes perseveres. But, in the words of one such cliche, Gregory needs his team to do his talking for him today.

The touchline ban he received yesterday must have embarrassed Ellis, who moves in the highest Football Association circles, but Gregory is thought to be safe at least until Wednesday, when Villa receive Southampton in the Worthington Cup. Ellis was reputedly aggrieved that the Champions' League place which appeared Villa's for the taking last winter did not materialise. Yet participation in Europe's most lucrative tournament can be a mixed blessing, with only Manchester United having evidently mastered the art of maintaining performance levels when returning to domestic action.

Chelsea have looked conspicuously laboured in most of their Premiership matches following Champions' League games, prompting complaints that Gianluca Vialli has his priorities wrong. Defeats at Derby and Watford, not to mention surrendering a two-goal lead at home to Arsenal, highlighted the problem, although their best result, the 5-0 mauling of Manchester United, also came after a European diversion.

A visit from Bradford would seem to offer Chelsea the ideal opportunity for their first League win in the two months since then. Paul Jewell's side may not be the soft touch Barnsley were, though neither is one of the division's older and slower line-ups likely to live with the section's best passing side.

Leeds, who would displace the Tokyo-bound Manchester United as leaders by beating Southampton tomorrow, have also discovered that Europe is a double-edged sword. Their only defeat since August, at Wimbledon three weeks ago, came on the back of an arduous haul from Moscow. Leeds were back among Russia's frozen waste this week and, although they did not play, tiredness could again be a factor. The match marks the start of a gruelling sequence of seven games in four competitions in just 21 days which should determine whether or not David O'Leary's "babies" burn out as Villa did last season.

Third-placed Arsenal, who won at Derby in the Worthington Cup with a makeshift side, should have enough in the tank after Thursday's defeat of Nantes to step up their challenge. However, they will miss Emmanuel Petit, who aggravated a knee injury against his countrymen.

Tottenham and Liverpool have moved in stealthily behind the leading pack. Spurs' response to their shattering last-gasp exit from the Uefa Cup in Germany - wins over Arsenal and Southampton - demonstrated their growing resilience under George Graham. At St James' Park tomorrow they will seek to exploit any leg-weariness on Newcastle's part following their rearguard action in Rome.

Intriguingly, the Premiership statistical service reveals that Spurs have made more tackles than any other team, while Arsenal have had the most shots. Neither, surely, could have happened if Graham were still at Highbury.

Liverpool's failure to qualify for Europe, a source of great anguish at the time, may actually be working in their favour. Whereas their hosts today, West Ham, were already jaded by the autumn as a result of their Intertoto and Uefa Cup exertions, Gerard Houllier has been steadily integrating his summer signings. A repeat of last week's success at Sunderland would confirm Liverpool as genuine contenders. One person cannot lose at Upton Park: Mrs Redknapp, Harry's wife and Jamie's mum.