Football: Liverpool look for a form upset

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AS A casual glance at any American newspaper shows, 78 per cent of sporting statistics are bunkum. Liverpool, according to the Carling Opta statistics, have had more shots and more successful passes than any other Premiership team.

While few Anfield devotees will be surprised to discover their team will this afternoon record their 6000th square pass, this proves the old maxim about `lies, damned lies and statistics'. The figures that matter are 12th and three, Liverpool's position in the table and their number of consecutive defeats. Not that going on the road is likely to provide much relief today.

Liverpool are at Villa Park, where they have won once in 13 league visits and face a team which boasts a 12-match unbeaten start to the season.

Moreover Aston Villa, who start the day three points clear at the top of the Premiership, have the League's form striker, Dion Dublin, fresh from a highly-praised midweek appearance for England and five goals in two matches since his move from Coventry. Dublin will resume a burgeoning partnership with Stan Collymore and Paul Merson which has John Gregory, the Villa manager, purring "I feel confident going into games with those three together." Gerard Houllier cannot feel so chirpy about a Liverpool defence which has shipped eight goals in three games but he should have Michael Owen (hamstring) and Jamie Redknapp (groin) fit.

Second-placed Manchester United travel to Sheffield Wednesday with Andy Cole especially eager to add substance to his complaints about Glenn Hoddle's rejection of his talents. Danny Wilson, Wednesday's manager, has fewer doubts, Cole having scored four times in a 7-0 win against his Barnsley side last October and twice in United's 6-1 win over Wednesday a week later. Wilson would dearly love some of that goalpower at Hillsborough, only the suspended Paolo Di Canio having passed the two-goal mark for Wednesday this season.

"The thing I learned [when United beat Barnsley 7-0] was how clinical they were in front of goal," said Wilson. "It was frightening. Their finishing would have punished anyone. Cole is a fantastic player, he and Dwight Yorke are on top form and it is difficult to know how to stop them."

The leading pair's pursuers, Arsenal and Chelsea, have difficult away games at Wimbledon and Leicester respectively. Arsenal, being able to match muscle with muscle, have a good record at Wimbledon, losing only once since the Dons moved to Selhurst Park, but are still relieved to have Dennis Bergkamp and Tony Adams back.

Leicester v Chelsea matches have been fraught since the infamous penalty in their FA Cup meeting two seasons ago and the police will be on their guard as well as both defences.

Leeds, at home to Charlton, and Middlesbrough, who host Coventry, will be expected to make up ground but neither can be sure of victory. Charlton are unbeaten in four while Middlesbrough have an entire midfield suspended, including Paul Gascoigne, to face a Coventry side which appears to have been liberated by the ending of Dublin's transfer saga.

At the bottom Blackburn and Southampton, so often intertwined in transfers, meet for an unexpected relegation head-to-head. Both clubs' injury problems have contributed to their demise but each are still performing below par. Equally surprising is the contrasting fate of two young strikers. When Kevin Davies joined Rovers from Saints for pounds 7.5m in the summer James Beattie was a pounds 1m makeweight. Today Davies, who is yet to score, may be dropped while Beattie is in line for a full debut.

Southampton, who would put Blackburn on the bottom if they won, should include their other ex-Rover, Stuart Ripley, but Matt Le Tissier, so often a scorer against Blackburn, has a hamstring doubt. David Jones, the Southampton manager, said: "This is a big game for both clubs but it won't decide the season."

The other relegation zone team, Nottingham Forest, go to Tottenham where George Graham bemoaned the difficulty of building a side in an age when players show little loyalty. Leeds fans would doubtless agree.

Tomorrow the team formerly known as West Ham United Nations, but now largely Anglicised, visit their successors in the overseas transfer market, Derby International, once known as County. Jim Smith, like Harry Redknapp before him, has begun reducing the number of languages in the dressing room but last Monday's injury to Russell Hoult means 'keeper's ball' will again be Estonian-accented as Mart Poom returns.