Football: Owen return the only shaft of light for Keegan

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THERE WERE a few expressions that must have come to Kevin Keegan's mind when he looked at the weekend programme of Premiership matches and "sadly timed" - the one he used in public - was probably the only polite one. Sadly timed? Downright perverse if the truth be known.

The England coach had hoped to have a full week with his players ahead of the brace of European Championship qualifiers against Scotland but, thanks to television and the Uefa Cup, eight teams have delayed their games until tomorrow.

And what gentle little run-outs these are likely to be. Two London derbies, Alan Shearer swapping bruises with an Everton team whose alternate strip could be tartan and the Premiership leaders travelling to that not so powder-puff side, Wimbledon, could have been made to order by Scotland's Craig Brown, who has concerns of his own as Rangers also meet Celtic tomorrow. As Keegan added: "I'm happy with the quality of the squad. I just need the players to turn up now."

Keegan's first port of concern will be at Old Trafford today, where Leicester provide the opposition on the 13th anniversary of Sir Alex Ferguson becoming manager of Manchester United, a match that will bring together six of the England squad. Neither team, it can safely be said, will lay back and think of England.

United, second in the Premiership, need points to keep in touch with Leeds while the fifth-placed Leicester are anxious to pick up on their travels. "We have to start getting more points away from Filbert Street," their midfielder Neil Lennon said. "Losing four out of six matches away from home is not what the doctor ordered."

Their search for a remedy should refer to the corresponding fixture last season when United managed a 2-2 draw only thanks to goals in the last 11 minutes from Teddy Sheringham and David Beckham. A lasting memory of what was the first game of the 1998-99 campaign was the Leicester fans singing: "You're not very good", which looked a trifle absurd nine months later.

If United slip up Sunderland could be top tonight, although a Tees-Wear derby at the Riverside would not have been their first-choice route to get them there. A measure of Sunderland's rise came yesterday when Peter Reid and 13-goal Kevin Phillips won the October manager and player of the month awards respectively, but as Middlesbrough have run up four successive victories Bryan Robson must have been mentioned in despatches. "We don't want Sunderland going nine points ahead of us," the Boro manager said. "If we want to stay in the top half of the division and try to qualify for Europe, these are the games we have to win."

Robson ought to swap places with Danny Wilson if he wants fixtures with an impelling reason to get three points. His Sheffield Wednesday side play host to Watford and if they lose their prospects of remaining in the Premiership will look bleaker than yesterday's rain-lashed Pennines.

Bottom-placed Wednesday are four points and a place behind Watford but at least they have Andy Booth to call upon after his pounds 2.75m move to Leicester was abandoned. Their opponents, meanwhile, will include Neil Cox, who completed a pounds 500,000 move from Bolton yesterday.

Steve Froggatt's surprise inclusion in the England squad may not be enough to guarantee him a starting place for Coventry at Bradford as the Moroccan international Youssef Chippo is available after a one-match ban. The home side, too, pick from relative riches as Peter Beagrie, Ashley Westwood and Isaiah Rankin are fit again. The Bradford manager, Paul Jewell, needs them all but he will be anxious not to dissipate the team spirit that appears to be his greatest weapon. "If we can show the same level of work and commitment that we produced at Liverpool on Monday we'll be all right," he said.

Jewell needs more goals, but so does Aston Villa's John Gregory. Today his team meet Southampton and so anxious is he to see more potency in front of goal he may include Paul Merson, who has had a growing relationship with the substitutes' bench since criticising his manager in a book.

After a difficult start, Liverpool's season has suddenly taken on a different light following three wins in an undefeated run of five matches, and they meet strugglers Derby County at Anfield having suddenly risen to sixth.

Their trials and their subsequent successes are largely down to the absence and return of key players such as Dietmar Hamann and Stephane Henchoz, and manager Gerard Houllier will get even closer to picking the first team he has in his head when Michael Owen returns. He is perhaps the one player Keegan is more than happy to see playing this weekend.