Football: Make or break time for would-be champions: Former Goodison Park favourite endeavours to pile on the pressure for Everton's troubled manager

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THE fault lines exposed in Blackburn's early exit from Europe and also in last week's first League defeat of the season will be examined even more rigorously over the next four weeks, the fixture-fixer having organised a formidable litmus test for the team who chased Manchester United all the way to the line last time.

For Rovers, a would-be champions league of sorts begins tomorrow at Newcastle, first against third, Kevin Keegan against Kenny Dalglish, who followed him as the magnificent Liverpool '7'. Thereafter comes successive home games against Liverpool (fifth) and United (a point and a place behind in fourth) before Blackburn end October with a visit to Nottingham Forest (second).

If they can emerge with their confidence and their challenge intact then Dalglish and his players will have earned a fat monthly bonus from Jack Walker. Not that any of their rivals will have it easy.

After playing Blackburn, Manchester United have ahome fixture against Newcastle who four days further on are at Forest. Three days later and Forest go to Liverpool. In between United - though in this case more likely to be United's reserves - must face Newcastle again in the Coca-Cola Cup and Barcelona twice for European Cup points. Too many games? Not when they are of this quality.

Tomorrow's confrontation at St James' Park is a fascinating contrast between managerial styles and goalscoring machines. In the black-and-white corner: Cole and Lee with 23 between them already; in the blue and white: Sutton and Shearer with 17.

By the first Saturday of November then we should have more idea of the likely destination of the Premiership trophy, or at least of those teams who can stand the pace. At that point there will also be new managers at Tottenham and Everton, assuming, that is, that Alan Sugar and Peter Johnson believe everything they read.

Midweek defeats in the Coca- Cola Cup against First Division opposition (although at least Spurs could claim an aggregate victory against Watford) has turned up the heat in the kitchens of two managers, Ossie Ardiles and Mike Walker, who are advocates of bright, progressive football and for that reason alone deserve to be given more time.

Neither can expect an easy ride today. After Portsmouth drew a line under their first Cup campaign of the season, Everton have travelled west along the south coast to Southampton to continue their search for their season's first win. As a former Goodison favourite, Alan Ball has sympathy for their plight but not today because the Saints are into a jaunty stride, if not yet a march, and there is the opportunity to extend their unbeaten run to seven games.

Duncan Ferguson's first taste of Premiership football could also be Matthew Le Tissier's big chance to seal a first-ever place in England's line-up for Wednesday's friendly international with Romania. A four-goal haul in midweek suggests he is the man in form, Sutton, Cole and Lee notwithstanding.

Romania's European Championship fixture in France today weakens Ardiles' hand which is without Ilie Dumitrescu and Georghe Popescu against QPR while international calls also disrupt Manchester United.