Football: High life may be short for United: Phil Shaw finds grounds for optimism in football's weekend programme

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The Independent Online
AFTER all the Christmas derbies and cup drama, it is back to what the Crystal Palace manager, Steve Coppell, this week revealingly called 'the drudgery of the Premier League'. Two grounds, at least, promise to be drudgery-free zones.

Old Trafford will have a capacity crowd of 36,000 to see whether Manchester United can go top for the first time this season by beating Tottenham. The figure at Anfield, where Aston Villa would assume the leadership if they defeated Liverpool and United faltered, may even be over 40,000.

United's ascendancy, which would be on goal-difference only, could be short-lived as leaders Norwich are due at Sheffield Wednesday tomorrow. Alex Ferguson has an embarrassment of riches and both scorers in the FA Cup victory over Bury, Mike Phelan and Keith Gillespie, stand down for the fit- again Paul Ince and Ryan Giggs.

Quite apart from the chances

little Marlow made against Spurs, there are good reasons for United's forwards to be confident. They have already won at White Hart Lane, where Giggs scored one of the goals of the season, while Eric Cantona helped himself to a hat-trick against Spurs for Leeds.

Attention at Liverpool will centre on the 'homecoming' of Saunders, Staunton and Houghton, the latter even receiving a Player of the Year trophy beforehand. The most significant return, however, could be made by the Villa striker Dalian Atkinson, who is set to play through the pain of a stomach injury.

Having scored only once last season, Atkinson has found the net 13 times and won two BBC Goal of the Month awards. 'Last year it was more like month of the goal,' Ron Atkinson, the Villa manager, quipped yesterday.

Graham Taylor's choice of fixture may be instructive. With England's World Cup qualifier against San Marino at Wembley five weeks away, Taylor must be concerned about the problems afflicting his main strikers, Ian Wright and Alan Shearer. The worryingly volatile Wright plays for Arsenal at home to Sheffield United, but misses three forthcoming matches through suspension. Shearer seems certain to sit out Blackburn's game with Wimbledon because of a persistent knee injury.

Of those likely to figure in Taylor's contingency plans, Alan Smith and Brian Deane are in opposition at Highbury; Les Ferdinand leads QPR's attack at Middlesbrough; David Hirst has the stage to himself in tomorrow's tussle at Hillsborough; and then there is Dalian Atkinson.

Meanwhile, Brian Clough begins his 19th year in charge of Nottingham Forest urgently requiring victory at Coventry to close the gap at the bottom. Leeds face Southampton without the suspended David Batty and wondering, after Gordon Strachan's dismissal in a friendly in Italy, what else can go wrong.

Even before the festive fillip, Barclays League crowds were on the increase. In the First Division (up 4 per cent), tomorrow's visit of West Ham to Derby should help maintain the trend. Likewise in the Second Division (up nearly 13 per cent), the meeting of Brighton and leaders Stoke and West Brom's attractive match with Bolton.