Football: Neal faces fiery baptism at home: Phil Shaw reports on the weekend's programme as the following pack try to rein in Manchester United

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A WEEK ago Phil Neal was still Graham Taylor's coach with England, just back from Bologna and the abyss. Today, taking charge of his first Coventry home match since becoming the Premiership's newest manager, he has the dubious pleasure of a visit from Manchester United. The words 'frying pan' and 'fire' seem uncomfortably apposite.

The rest of the field, led by Blackburn and Aston Villa, 12 points adrift of United, are hoping against hope that the confirmation of Neal as Bobby Gould's replacement can galvanise the Sky Blues into their early-season form. In their annual bout of flattering to deceive they beat Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle - all now high in the pack pursuing the leaders.

Coventry can also draw encouragement, albeit slender, from recent history. When United came to Highfield Road at Easter, Roy Wegerle rattled the woodwork before the champions-to-be edged home 1-0. Wegerle returns from suspension to beef up the support for Mick Quinn, who was dismissed (and later exonerated) after a brush with Peter Schmeichel last time.

While Quinn was injudiciously declaring his Liverpudlian's loathing for United yesterday - 'I'd even rather Everton won the League' - Neal took a more rational approach. 'United have been beaten by Chelsea and held at home by Ipswich,' he said. 'If they can do it, why shouldn't we? They're the one big scalp we've not got since I came here.

'In my playing days at Liverpool we never talked about the opposition for more than two minutes. It was all about what we were going to do. I hope to do the same at Coventry and start by proving United can be caught. Realistically, we can beat anyone.'

Fighting talk, but Quinn is no Dalglish, and Dave Busst, called up to cover for flu victim Brian Borrows, no Hansen. Neal's predecessor was wont to compare Peter Ndlovu somewhat fancifully with George Best, and perhaps the most Coventry can hope for is that the Zimbabwean matches Ryan Giggs. Then we could have a contest.

Talking of flu, there might be support from Chelsea, Manchester City and Sheffield Wednesday, all with stricken personnel, for re-naming the Premiership the Lemsip League. Tony Adams, who has recovered from it, is expected to replace Andy Linighan, who fears he has it, in Arsenal's defence against Newcastle.

Adams could have wished for a gentler re-introduction than to face Andy Cole on his return to Highbury. Cole, 22 goals in 18 games this season, had four years at Arsenal, and hinted at a certain bitterness over the way George Graham offloaded him to Bristol City 15 months ago.

'It was obvious he didn't rate me,' Cole said, 'and that he thought I had a personality problem.' In fairness, it is only a month since most of Tyneside felt the same, after he missed a match at Wimbledon pleading homesickness. A hat-trick against Liverpool and a further goal in midweek ensured the rapprochement was complete.

In pre-San Marino circumstances, Graham Taylor might have been present to assess Cole and Ian Wright in the same context. Now that John Lyall is tipped as his caretaker successor, Ipswich will come under unusually close scrutiny at home to Blackburn. A bad performance and Lyall could end up with a tabloid turnip on his head.

That might be preferable to egg on the face, as endured by Ron Atkinson in Villa's embarrassment by Southampton on Wednesday. Yet in spite of a succession of mediocre home displays, last season's runners-up go to Liverpool tomorrow in joint second place. Some championship 'race'; like the England shambles, it would be funny if it were not pathetic.