Football: Premier League leaders prepare to enter the home straight

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THE countdown to the first Premier League championship starts properly today for Norwich City, Manchester United and Aston Villa. Much has been made of the advantage Norwich have in that both their rivals have to visit Carrow Road.

However, two other clubs could affect the race. Manchester City, who face United in an 11am derby, have also to visit Aston Villa. And Wimbledon, who meet Norwich at Selhurst Park today, play United in the last match of the season. Meeting the Bash Street Kids when seeking three points which might decide the title is not the wish of any manager.

While the mass of City's supporters will look no further than stopping United - their current fanzine King of the Kippax devotes more space to United-bashing than City-boosting - their player-manager Peter Reid knows there is more at stake. Spurs'

4-2 Cup victory at Maine Road a fortnight ago was a wounding blow to City's pride, purse and prestige.

Reid will tell his players this morning: 'Everybody will be watching closely to see if your bottle goes again when the pressure's on. A win will mean a lot to our supporters but it could also have a vital bearing on a possible Uefa Cup place next season.'

Reid's major concern will be City's midfield which Spurs over-ran, Garry Flitcroft and Fitzroy Simpson being made to look tactically naive. Simpson is doubtful today and, with Steve McMahon still convalescing, it is odds on that Reid's grey head will be seen on the park.

Villa, meanwhile, are building their strength for the final haul: Tony Daley and Dalian Atkinson are back in the squad. Today's opponents, Sheffield Wednesday, like Manchester City, will want points to ensure a European place should they lose in their Cup challenges.

Having recovered their confidence, and the leadership, Norwich will be tempted to attack Wimbledon, with or without the doubtful Mark Robins, thus leaving themselves open to Wimbledon's counter-punch. With the weakest defence among the leading clubs, the Canaries are in danger of losing their perch.

There is another great derby scheduled today, although it is a long time since the Merseyside encounter was considered of so little national significance. Liverpool and Everton are all but mathematically safe, which should lead to more relaxed football. Everton's burgeoning strength can be assessed from their leaving out Maurice Johnston and Peter Beagrie. For Howard Kendall and Graeme Souness this will be seen as a practice match for next season.

The Premier League trapdoor looks like closing upon Oldham Athletic, Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough. If Forest lose at home to Leeds tomorrow and Oldham fail at home to Queen's Park Rangers today and at Ayresome Park against Middlesbrough on Monday night, they can start checking on RAC routes to Cambridge and Brentford.