Football: Horton to face judgement day: Phil Shaw on the twists in the tale of three cities whose teams face decisive fixtures this weekend

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The Independent Online
LONDON stages a Premiership double-header which should put Blackburn's championship hopes into sharper perspective, but the weekend's toughest, tensest matches are likely to be fought out in two other cities.

In Manchester today, 19th-placed City face the bottom club, Swindon, in a game which may help to clarify not only the relegation issue but also the career prospects of their manager, Brian Horton.

Tomorrow in Birmingham, before an anticipated 42,000 crowd, Aston Villa will attempt to overturn a 3-1 deficit in the second leg of their Coca-Cola Cup semi-final with Tranmere. Failure would make Villa Park a trophy-free zone for the third season since Ron Atkinson's defection from Sheffield Wednesday.

Even if the First Division side proceed to Wembley - and a last- gasp away goal means Villa have to win 'only' 2-0 rather than 4-0 - Atkinson's tenure will be enviably secure. The same can hardly be said for Horton, who is under pressure to persuade City's new owner, Francis Lee, that he is capable of keeping them up.

Swindon's visit, with which Horton completes six months at City, is understood to be the last of five matches on which will Lee will base his judgement of the former Oxford manager. Should it go badly, City are expected to look elsewhere for their man of destiny. The names of Joe Royle and Bruce Rioch have already been touted.

City have been typically, maddeningly mercurial during Horton's 'probation'. After beating Ipswich and drawing with West Ham at home, they crashed 4-0 at Coventry before surviving a penalty to prise a point from Villa. This is a club who ought to incorporate Oscar Wilde's view of consistency as the last refuge of the unimaginative in their crest.

If it does turn out to be Horton's swan-song, there will at least be a certain symmetry to his reign. For it began with a 3-1 success at Swindon, where his team featured White, Quinn, Holden, Coton and Curle, none of whom will be wearing the light blue today.

Older City fans may, however, look further back for omens. In 1965 a Swindon side including Mike Summerbee - who will join Lee to watch son Nicky take on his beloved City - won before a Maine Road gathering of just 8,015. The game is enshrined in folklore as the darkest hour before the new dawn ushered in by Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison.

Manchester United's lead has been cut from 13 points to six since they last played in the Premiership, although their main pursuers have now played a game more. While Arsenal will provide a stern test for Blackburn, Ian Wright's absence can only help Rovers build on a record of seven points out of nine against the Gunners.

Ten of Terry Venables's first England squad, to be named on Monday, could be on view at Highbury. United's game at West Ham promises fewer candidates but greater entertainment. Upton Park may seem an unlikely place for the champions to falter, yet it was the scene of their most shattering setback during the run-in with Leeds two years ago.

An attractive First Division card offers the leaders, Crystal Palace, at home to FA Cup quarter-finalists Bolton; a packed Molineux (again) for the Wolves-West Brom derby; plus the visit of Birmingham, in 22nd spot, to high-riding Derby.

Poor old Birmingham. With legal wrangling forming a distracting backdrop to their struggles, the writ has truly hit the fan for Barry Fry. They have already used 38 players in the League, six short of Coventry's 74-year-old record, and lost 12 consecutive away fixtures. And Manchester City supporters think they have problems.

Gary Mabbutt has been included in Tottenham's squad for tomorrow's derby with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Mabbutt, who has been out of action for three months after suffering severe facial injuries in an incident involving John Fashanu, is in line for a midfield role.