Football: Leaders have points to prove: Henry Winter on the weekend Premier League programme

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The Independent Online
CUP competitions, Super Sundays and Manic Mondays have tended to dissipate the significance of recent Saturday results but this afternoon the three chief contenders for the Premier League title are all at home with points to prove and procure in a compelling programme.

Manchester United, two points behind Aston Villa, the leaders who have played a match more, take on Southampton at Old Trafford in what should be a highly competitive occasion. 'There will be an extra edge on our game after the disappointment of going out of the FA Cup last Sunday,' Alex Ferguson said.

The United manager is able to field Eric Cantona up front, the talismanic Frenchman having missed the Cup defeat at Sheffield United as he was away on World Cup duty. Paul Ince's son has been discharged from hospital so the United player, who pulled out of England's midweek international, will be able to apply his considerable ball-winning abilities in the scrap for midfield supremacy.

The odds favour United: their recent run - one defeat in 13 outings - is as healthy as Southampton's record at Old Trafford is poor, the Saints having tasted victory only once in 19 visits. United will go top if they make it a sorry score for Southampton and Villa are held by an Everton side increasingly desperate for points.

Villa's manager, Ron Atkinson, has injury problems in two key positions. Garry Parker, a midfielder whose thoughtful approach play and instinctive finishing has been a joy to witness this season, is missing with a troublesome rib. The striker Dalian Atkinson, another Villa man with an eye for the spectacular, is again doubtful and may require surgery on his recalcitrant stomach-muscle complaint.

Before kick-off there should be plenty of Men At Work: both keepers are Australian. Mark Bosnich defends the home goal while Jason Kearton hopes to draw an iron curtain over the other end. The pair have met only once before, Kearton triumphing in an inter-state game between Queensland and New South Wales.

Mike Walker, manager of third- placed Norwich City, has been making flattering noises about his guests today, even tipping Manchester City for the FA Cup. 'They have an excellent goalkeeper, a sound defence and strikers who always seem to cause us problems,' he said. Walker's words of praise echo the record books: Norwich have beaten City only once in their last 29 League encounters. 'If there is a jinx it is high time we ended it,' he added.

Walker's opposite number, Peter Reid, travelled up separately from the City squad to avoid passing on the flu bug he is suffering from.

East Anglia has provided the most refreshing response to the big-city pursuit of the championship and Ipswich, in fourth place, can confirm their burgeoning class if they prevail at Anfield. John Barnes, the Liverpool captain booed at Wembley, can expect a far warmer welcome and could prove a worthwhile investment at the bookies to score the first goal.

The quality of this weekend's round of matches is shown in the supporting fixtures. Tottenham Hotspur v Leeds United promises goals: Spurs slumped to bottom when the champions put five past them at Elland Road in August but such has been their revival since that it would be a surprise if either Sheringham, Barmby or Anderton failed to score.

Dave Bassett's return to Wimbledon with Sheffield United is unlikely to have Gary Lineker rushing to turn on Japan's equivalent of Ceefax but the relegation dog-fight should provide plenty of incident.

Dave Webb's first tour of duty as manager of an out-of-sorts Chelsea takes him to Blackburn Rovers tomorrow. Webb was full of praise for his new chairman. 'Compared to the chairman (Vic Jobson) I had at my previous club, Southend, Ken Bates is Mary Poppins,' he said. The bearded supremo will expect nothing less than a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious start.

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