Football: Pressure on Munificent Seven: Phil Shaw anticipates an absorbing weekend of Premier and Football League action

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The Independent Online
WHO would have thought it, going into this fourth Premier League weekend: two former stalwarts of the Third Division (South) and one of the old Lancashire town teams comprising the top three, with a Frenchman as leading scorer?

For Norwich, who became the fourth leaders in a week on Wednesday, and Coventry, autumn is likely to usher in cold reality. The early success of Blackburn Rovers and Eric Cantona, of Leeds, may, however, be symptomatic of a more sustained shift in the balance of power.

Not so long ago the activities of a handful of big clubs, on and off the pitch, looked ripe for scrutiny by the Monopolies Commission. Jack Walker's millions and Howard Wilkinson's management have changed all that. If the Big Five still exists then Blackburn and Leeds are now part of it (perhaps, to placate Everton and Tottenham, it should be sarcastically amended to the Munificent Seven).

But with such status comes pressure - financial, physical, mental and the kind all managers crave, which comes from being The Team To Beat.

Leeds, as champions, have felt it in every match although not, one suspects, with the intensity they will encounter at Manchester United tomorrow. Blackburn, who receive Nottingham Forest today, buckled under it last season but with the slate wiped clean are anxious to relive the experience on a regular basis.

While Rovers' own history is as rich as Mr Walker, their visitors' recent past provides a glorious example of what they might achieve. Fifteen years ago, Forest scraped up from the old Second Division in third place by dint of a last- match defeat for Bolton after they had completed their fixtures. Shades of May, when Blackburn came sixth but won promotion with a dubious penalty in the play- off final.

Whereas Kenny Dalglish then went out and bought a striker, Alan Shearer, in 1977 Brian Clough invested in Peter Shilton. Forest went on to emulate Alf Ramsey's Ipswich side of 1962 by winning the title. Their rise of 24 places was staggering enough; Blackburn would have to climb 27 to repeat the feat.

Forest arrive at Ewood Park with four defeats behind them. They last lost five in a row in the year 3 BC (Before Clough) - aka 1972 - yet there is nothing wrong with the present squad that pounds 4m worth of players would not put right.

Dion Dublin's broken leg may prompt Manchester United to spend again, especially if they lose their latest trans-Pennine collision with Leeds. The result will doubtless be seen as hugely significant, even though Manchester's two Cup wins and two League draws last season proved no insurance against Leeds's ultimate triumph.

Alex Ferguson's side have won their last three without playing particularly well; Wilkinson's men are mixing more than a frisson of flair, notably from Cantona, with defensive vulnerability. Ryan Giggs's wide duel with Jon Newsome may prove central to the outcome on a potentially acrimonious afternoon.

Liverpool, who have dropped 12 out of 18 points, might have wished for less resurgent opponents today. Chelsea have already scored three times at Hillsborough and Villa Park, where the 20-year-old winger Eddie Newton revealed attacking promise to test even Rob Jones.

It is a trifle premature to talk about changing the legendary message on the tunnel wall to 'This was Anfield', but as a further sign of the times, Liverpool's once-invincible reserves have already lost to Barnsley and Bolton.

All four 100 per cent records in the Football League - belonging to Newcastle, Birmingham, West Bromwich and York - come under threat in tough away fixtures. Many people would have put their mortgages on Kevin Keegan failing, but his refusal on Radio 5 this week to go along with usual disingenuous guff about banning the word 'promotion' revealed a positivism which bodes well for Newcastle.

One promotion it has been impossible to avoid is Sky's advertising for their Premier package. Tomorrow, when their cameras are at Old Trafford, there is live action on three channels for the first time ever. ITV will be at both Derby and Huddersfield, but hands up who's staying in for Sampdoria v Lazio on Channel 4? Now that really is a whole new ball game.

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