Football: Keegan's fate bound up with United

Guy Hodgson previews the weekend's Premiership action, which culminates tomorrow with more than pride at stake
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The Independent Online
You could forgive Kevin Keegan for feeling that the fate of his Newcastle managership is inextricably linked with Manchester United.

Last season, his team were denied the championship by a late charge by Alex Ferguson's team and, now that they have regained the lead in the Premiership for the first time since March, who do they meet?

Like Holmes and Moriarty, Keegan and Ferguson have been pitting their wits since Newcastle were promoted in 1993 and it is the Manchester United manager who usually comes out on top.

Six league matches, no wins; if Newcastle's players and supporters have a bete noire, it is undoubtedly clothed in a red shirt. The teams meet tomorrow at St James' Park, the scene of the pivotal - and snapshot - moment of last season. The home team, their attack rampant, dominated for the first half. When the goal did not come, they faded quietly away. The winner was snatched by Eric Cantona.

The faces in the crowd that cold March night said everything as, for the first time, it dawned on Tyneside that Keegan's team might not win the championship. Tears were shed and within three weeks the leadership of the Premiership was lost. A grudge has been nurtured ever since.

"The Manchester United game is one we want to win," Peter Beardsley said this week, "but I wouldn't say that it is more important than beating Coventry or West Ham." Oh yes? Try telling that to the Newcastle supporters, or Keegan, for that matter, who had his players training behind closed doors yesterday in preparation.

Newcastle need to win, if only for the self-belief it would stoke on Tyneside, while the visitors are desperate not to lose and fall five points behind a team they regard as one of their most dangerous rivals. "We can't afford to let a gap develop," Ferguson said yesterday, echoing the words of last week before his side paid Liverpool back with a 1-0 win.

Then Ferguson had a Champions' League tie on the agenda immediately afterwards. It was with a sense of relief he could concentrate on Newcastle in isolation. "I don't have to worry about injuries," he said. That news will go down like a punctured balloon in Swindon, who travel to Old Trafford on Wednesday for a Coca-Cola Cup tie.

Roy Keane is pencilled in for that one, although there was just a hint yesterday he might turn up at St James' Park in playing gear. He is travelling to Newcastle ostensibly because Ferguson wants to gauge the Republic of Ireland midfield player's fitness, but if the impression is favourable it is going to take steely resistance to temptation on the manager's part not to include him, at least on the bench.

Just as Newcastle have floundered against Manchester United, Liverpool have had a fruitless time against Everton since Joe Royle was appointed manager at Goodison Park. They meet at Anfield an hour before the kick- off at St James' Park, with the bookmakers making the home team favourites, if only because of a law of averages.

In Merseyside derbies of recent vintage, Everton have, shall we say, been more robust than their neighbours to an extent that the Liverpool manager, Roy Evans, made some disparaging comments about the Goodison club being called the school of science after one defeat. Whether this will be the case tomorrow is debatable, however, as two of Royle's snappers in midfield, John Ebbrell and Joe Parkinson, are extremely doubtful.

This is unlikely to make Royle, who has been upset at recent reviews, any happier. "To be honest, everyone feels a bit aggrieved at some of the flak flying around," he said yesterday. "After all, we've taken seven points from our last nine and are lying only four points off a European place."

A win over the old enemy and all criticism will be forgotten. However, that is unlikely to be the case if Wimbledon lead the Premiership come tonight. The end of the world was all but predicted when the Dons won the FA Cup but, if results go in their favour today, the Crazy Gang will be perched on top of the league, albeit for 24 hours.

For that to happen will require Arsenal losing at home to Coventry and Wimbledon winning away at Chelsea, but after a club record six successive victories, the feeling around Selhurst Park is that anything is possible. "All the lads are buzzing," Brian McAllister, the Dons' defender, said, as indeed will be the headline writers. But, somehow, football will probably survive.

RELATIVE STRENGTHS OF THE UNITEDS

NEWCASTLE UNITED v MANCHESTER UNITED

DEFENCE 7/10

Kevin Keegan seems to have a policy of: "If they get two, we'll get three", which makes this the weak link. Unjustly pilloried at times because the team contain too many forward players who do not do their bit when it comes to tracking back, their case falls apart when they mark like they did against Ferencvaros.

MIDFIELD 7/10

Wonderful going forward, not so good in reverse gear. Batty's purchase was supposed to sort out the "over to you, Philippe" school of marking, but there is little evidence of a change in curriculum. Still, Beardsley, Ginola and Gillespie do wonderful things with a ball. Lee is due a good game against United.

FORWARDS 10/10

They paid a small fortune to get a commanding leader of the line and they got one: big, strong and lethal anywhere near the penalty area. But enough of Ferdinand, Shearer is doing a pretty good job too. Get the ball to them in the right positions and they will score goals. You cannot ask for more.

DEFENCE 9/10

Improved their rating in a week because of their performances against Liverpool and Fenerbahce. May, the player perpetually about to be dropped, is in magnificent form, while Johnsen has quickly picked up the rhythms of the English game. Phil Neville's return brings an embarrassment of riches at full-back.

MIDFIELD 8/10

Still missing Keane and you wonder how much longer Beckham can keep working so hard and still produce going forward. On the plus side, Butt is getting better and better while Cruyff at last looks to have had something passed down from his father. What they need now is a fit, in-form Giggs.

FORWARDS 9/10

Solskjaer continues to astonish, not so much for his goals but with the maturity of his play for one so inexperienced. His backheel for the second goal against Fenerbahce was straight from Cantona's repertoire. Meanwhile, Le Roi will feel happier for a good night in Turkey.

Guy Hodgson

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