Football: Palace and Bolton top a tasty bill of fare

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BY VIRTUE of relegation, Crystal Palace against Bolton has gone from being bottom of the bill fare (at the wrong end of the Premiership) to being the undoubted match of the day.

When the sides last met, on 2 May at the Reebok Stadium, Bolton won 5- 2 to give themselves a faint - and unrealised - hope of Premiership safety, while Palace already knew their fate had been sealed.

A few things have changed since then, not least the arrival of Terry Venables at Selhurst Park, where today he will launch his second coming as the Eagles' manager, 19 years after leading the club to promotion. He joins several new faces at Palace, with the former Tottenham full-back, Dean Austin, likely to make his debut, and two young Argentinian signings, Cristian Ledesma and Pablo Rodriguez, waiting in the wings for their introduction to English football.

Other things never seem to change - the injured striker, Neil Shipperley, is doubtful to start and the midfielder Marcus Bent is also unlikely to play. Venables is aware of what lies ahead and seems keen to temper optimism with realism.

"The expectation level is too high," he said. "Personally, I can't wait to get started again, and with hard work we know we can get it right.

"But there's going to be pressure because I don't think there is the scope to improve the squad financially that a lot of people envisaged.

"We'll have to have some patience, but the enthusiasm and optimism is the main thing."

Bolton will give a debut to Jussi Jaaskelainen, their new Finnish goalkeeper. He replaces Keith Branagan, who is out for the next month with a knee injury, and will start alongside another debutant, the Danish midfielder Claus Jensen.

The Jamaican international defender, Ricardo Gardner, has yet to complete his transfer, and Colin Todd, the Bolton manager, will not rush the return of full-back Robbie Elliott, but optimism remains high in the side. "We are definitely good enough to go straight back," said Mark Fish, fresh from his World Cup duties with South Africa. "It was bitterly disappointing to be relegated on the last day of the season, especially on goal difference. But I'm looking forward to the challenge of playing in the Nationwide League."

Sunderland start their recovery from missing out on promotion - despite amassing 90 points last season - with the visit of Queen's Park Rangers. Their manager, Peter Reid, must be confident his side will go up this year after losing in the mother of all play-offs to Charlton.

Sunderland will be without their injured defenders Darren Holloway and Chris Makin, and the midfielder Alex Rae. The Danish Under-21 international goalkeeper, Thomas Sorensen, replaces the departed Lionel Perez, and Peter Butler, a pounds 1m signing from Bury, will make his debut in central defence.

QPR's Richard Ord will not be making an emotional return to the club he served for over 10 years - before his summer transfer - due to a knee injury.

The new Barnsley player-manager, John Hendrie, refused to speculate on his side's chances of an immediate Premiership return before their home game against West Bromwich today. "I'm not predicting anything," he said, adding that he will rely on the Tykes' grit and passion to speak for themselves.

"The most important thing for me is looking my players in the eyes and seeing they're totally committed," he said.

Hendrie will start up front after learning that Ashley Ward is out for four weeks with a knee problem, the defender Arjan de Zeeuw will play despite having had surgery on a broken nose, while debuts will be given to the summer signings Kevin Richardson and Robbie van der Laan.

West Bromwich will be without their two new Italians, Mario Bortolazzi and Enzo Maresca, who are having red-tape problems with their contracts.

Wolves, who face Tranmere at Molineux, will have to wait for the first appearance of the Spanish international Fernando Gomez. "It's more likely he'll make his debut in our Worthington Cup tie against Barnet on Tuesday," admitted manager Mark McGhee, whose striker, Steve Bull, will be looking for his 301st goal for the club.

The Tranmere manager, John Aldridge, is suffering a familiar injury crisis, with six players doubtful. He may give a debut to his new striker, Craig Russell.

Steve McMahon's Swindon start the season at Sheffield United, who will be playing their first league game under their new manager, Steve Bruce. "Obviously it is a difficult start because Sheffield United will be one of the teams looking to challenge for promotion," McMahon said. "But we have had a good season, have some new players on board and are optimistic about our chances."

Of today's other matches, Birmingham's game at Port Vale should be interesting, the visitors having scored 12 pre-season goals against Tottenham, Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday.

Watford's game at Portsmouth is an intriguing contest that pits two of the English game's great characters against each other - the visitors' Graham Taylor, looking for consecutive promotions, and the home side's Alan Ball, hoping he can guide his side from the bottom quarter of the table where they spent last season. Meanwhile, Ipswich open their campaign at Grimsby tomorrow.