Football: Hoddle hopes to divide United: Trevor Haylett looks forward to today's programme

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THEY HAVE designs now on the FA Cup, of course, but for a long time it looked as if Chelsea's decelerating season would be memorable only for the fact that they had been the one team so far to have reminded Manchester United what it is like to finish a Premiership game with the same number of points as they started it.

Since Glenn Hoddle's unlikely lot achieved in September what has since come to resemble something of an impossible task, 22 of their contemporaries have tried to match them in outmatching United and failed. At Stamford Bridge Alex Ferguson had said that his team had to 'accept we are not going to be successful every time and will have to make sure we just lose less than the rest'. Viewed from a distance today that observation reads like a gross underestimation of their talents.

This afternoon at Old Trafford Chelsea, who three years ago put the only dent in Arsenal's championship flourish, have the opportunity to go back and cut Goliath down a second time. A follow-up victory would be a considerable feather in their manager's cap not to mention the relief it would throw over their relegation concerns. Doubtless it would be received quite well at Ewood Park, Blackburn, too.

In the corresponding fixture, Ferguson, with an eye on Honved rather than Hoddle, decided to omit Mark Hughes because he was suspended from their first European Cup tie which was to follow in Hungary four days later. The gamble did not work and without their strong man United were beaten.

This time Hughes will play, but for the second successive game Eric Cantona is an injured bystander while Gary Pallister is doubtful because of a neck problem. Chelsea have their talented defender, Frank Sinclair, back after suspension to help resist the red waves and it could be that their manager will elect to snare United in a sweeper system, relying on the speed of Mark Stein and John Spencer to hit them on the break.

Stein and Gavin Peacock are Chelsea's lucky mascots, being the only players to have scored winning goals against Manchester's might this term, Stein's moment of glory coming for Stoke in the first leg of their Coca-Cola Cup second-round tie when admittedly United were some way short of full strength.

United's relentless assault on all three major trophies is a continuing frustration for those like Blackburn who have spent prodigiously to compete alongside them, yet for those losing sight of them in the Premiership there may be considerable compensation in the way of European places.

If Ferguson is indeed treble-triumphant in May then the side who finish third will gain the second Uefa Cup place designated for the Coca-Cola Cup victors. If Arsenal win the Cup-Winners' competition and finish second or third in the League, then there will be a Uefa spot for the fourth-best team.

Blackburn, seven points adrift of Manchester, will look to recover from last week's first League defeat since November when they play host to Kenny Dalglish's former side. For their part, Liverpool will be keen to avert a third successive away defeat under Roy Evans.

Newcastle visit Hillsborough bracing themselves against a stiff Sheffield Wednesday response to their Cup humbling in midweek, which is also Arsenal's chief concern when they go to Ipswich.

At the other end of the table, Swindon could come off the bottom for the first time in their debut season at the top if they get more points off West Ham than Sheffield United can prise from fellow strugglers Tottenham at White Hart Lane.