Football: Hapless Everton fear a seasonal stuffing at rampant United

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The Independent Online
Christmas crackers or Boxing Day stuffings, football leaves the heaving table today for the start of the festive programme that usually dictates whether teams truly have a happy new year. Guy Hodgson looks at the top matches.

If anything blighted Alex Ferguson's Christmas Day it was the presumption that the title is already destined for Old Trafford. "If the players start thinking it's won," the Manchester United manager said, "we'll have problems."

The statistics would appear to corroborate Ferguson's caution. Over the last 25 years only 11 teams leading the top division on Christmas Day have won the championship and one club has twice been four points clear and fallen back. United were the flattering front-runners in 1971-2 and 1985-6 and what is their lead today? Four points.

On that latter occasion the red Boxing Day swagger was wiped away by Everton, who also happen to be today's opponents. But while comparisons could just about be drawn with the United of today and 12 years ago, no- one with an ounce of compassion would hold up Goodison past and present for scrutiny.

The team that beat United 3-1 that day were the reigning champions and included Gary Lineker, Trevor Steven and Kevin Sheedy to name but three of a marvellous side and you do not have to be an Everton supporter to sigh nostalgically when you see the current players. The manager, Howard Kendall, probably does every time he takes out his pencil and starts writing out the line-up.

Other numbers hardly come to Everton's rescue today. They have won only one of their last six matches at United and managed to squander a two- goal lead on their last visit. They are second bottom and the only way they are scoring is through Gary Speed penalties.

United, meanwhile, have won their last five Premiership matches and even the Newcastle United-supporting Prime Minister, Tony Blair, took off his black and white striped glasses at the weekend to describe them as "one of the great sides of the century". Not that a politician would ever resort to exaggeration.

It is Ryan Giggs who is making grand claims seem plausible at the moment. Injury has hamstrung his progress for three seasons, but fully-fit again he looks capable of achieving what was promised in his salad days. "What you are seeing now is the fulfilment of that potential," Ferguson said. "On Sunday at Newcastle, Ryan was the most accomplished player on the pitch, a man of real class. His penetration catches teams."

It certainly did against Newcastle and Aston Villa and suddenly a period from 30 November that was full of potential pitfalls (Blackburn home, Liverpool and Newcastle away) has seen United forge ahead. "We've got to keep winning," Ferguson said. "If you can come out of December in front then you're in a good position."

No one would describe Tottenham's position (18th) as good and you suspect the Yuletide euphoria in N17 at Jurgen Klinsmann's return had its edge knocked off by the news that the German captain will be in Italy celebrating Christmas with his family rather than turning out today against Aston Villa.

His registration is through, as far as we know he is healthy and he will be no more match-fit today than he will against Arsenal on Sunday, his signalled return. You did not have to receive a dose of cynicism in your stocking to wonder at his commitment.

You can guarantee there will be no such reluctance from Brad Friedel. The 26-year-old American goalkeeper has had his attempts to play in the Premiership stymied so often you suspect he would turn out on his wedding day just to sit on the substitutes' bench. His chance for something better might come for Liverpool against Leeds at Anfield.

This time last year Liverpool led Manchester United by five points and it is difficult to find anyone on Merseyside who does not dump a large proportion of the blame for last spring's slump at David James' door. Even a steady season to date has not restored the faith and it is safe to say there will not be riots in the streets of Anfield if Friedel replaces "Calamity" today.

"I want to prove wrong people back home who don't believe it's possible for an American to make a living from soccer in Europe," Friedel said. Frankly after persuading the authorities, who turned down applications from Newcastle, Sunderland and Southampton for his work permit, his compatriots would appear to be the easy bit.

Kasey Keller is a Yank who has already courted success in the country of King Arthur but it will take a lot of New World optimism to imagine Leicester prevailing at Arsenal today. They have not won at Highbury since September 1973 and as their current run is only two wins in their last 10 League matches the portents are not promising.

"People talk about us as having established ourselves in the Premiership," the Leicester manager, Martin O'Neill, said. "It's a big compliment, but also dangerous. As soon as we start thinking we've made it we'll find ourselves getting the biggest shock of our lives."

As Barnsley have done, although the trip to Bolton today harks back to last season's successful First Division campaign and a 2-2 draw at Burnden Park. The other promoted team, Crystal Palace, will hope for their first home win of the season against Southampton while Chelsea have the memory of last season's 4-2 defeat by Wimbledon to prick any complacency at Stamford Bridge.

The most intriguing match of the day might come at Hillsborough, however, where home supporters will be able to see whether Ron Atkinson's return heralded a genuine improvment or a 19-day wonder. Sheffield Wednesday meet second-placed Blackburn with a previous meeting also to the forefront, the 7-2 thrashing at Ewood Park in August.