Football: Pride not enough as bereft Derby face United

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The Independent Online
THERE WERE all kinds of receptions at clubs after the "Battle of Britain" - never before has so little been done by so many - but spare a thought, if you can, for the manager of Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson makes William Wallace look flimsy when it comes to Scottish patriotism and, for the forseeable future, his numerous English charges will be able to remind him of their part in the running down of the saltire.

Extra work for Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Phil Neville and Andy Cole is probably already in the training programme at The Cliff, but as if the result was not bad enough for the Tartan knight, he had every reason to wish the European Championship play-offs were not going ahead even before they kicked off.

Just as the Premiership went into a two-week break, everything seemed to be going United's way. Not only did they defeat Leicester but their rivals obligingly dropped points as if they believed topping the table was a harbinger of bad fortune. Leeds and Arsenal lost, Chelsea and Sunderland drew, and suddenly Ferguson's team, who had performed wretchedly in October, were looking down on everyone else.

United's opponents today have had anything but a relaxed fortnight. It probably seemed like a good idea to take the first-team squad to Portugal but as Esteban Fuertes was refused entry on his return to Heathrow, the benefits look less obvious now. Derby are not so much rested as bereft, and with Deon Burton suspended, Fuertes in Argentina, Francesco Baiano in Italy and Mikkel Beck on loan to Nottingham Forest, they could have to play their wing-back Rory Delap up front with Dean Sturridge. With Stefano Eranio out with a broken leg, Lars Bohinen struggling with a knee injury and Seth Johnson having treatment on his back, Pride Park today might be a case of the dire versus the tired.

There also might be some weariness at Goodison Park today where Everton, who virtually won at Wembley on their own on Wednesday, face Chelsea, who must surely be the first third-favourites to win the championship not to provide a single player in an England-Scotland match. David Weir is suspended but John Collins and Don Hutchison will have to peak again after defeating the Auld Enemy to tackle the polyglot lot of London's West End.

Victory for Everton, unbeaten in the Premiership at Goodison Park this season, will take them above Chelsea, whose League form has fallen while their Champions' League star has risen. Gianluca Vialli's side last secured a Premiership victory on 3 October with their 5-0 thrashing of Manchester United and have since picked up just one point from four League games.

Bradford City have done a little better, but not much, and they will be eager to put that right with a victory over Leeds. Eager? Make that the one game they would like to win above all the others this season.

There was a time when Bradford were a much bigger club than anything Leeds could offer. With City FA Cup winners in 1911 and Bradford Park Avenue also a force in the game, if you had been asked to choose which West Yorkshire metropolis would become predominant for a long time you would have looked to Bradford rather than its bigger neighbour. Don Revie changed all that and it is indicative of the way the paths of the neighbours parted that the clubs have never met in England's top division. That is until today.

Winning at Elland Road would make the season bearable no matter what disappointments lie ahead, because Bradford have never beaten Leeds there in the League. With points needed by both for differing reasons and with the visitors including three former United players - Lee Sharpe, David Wetherall and Gunnar Halle - expect a robust derby.

Talking of which, we have reached the stage of the season where suspensions become a regular problem, although few clubs are going to match Sunderland's predicament as they prepare to meet Liverpool at the Stadium of Light. Third in the table, they top the indiscipline league and five players are suspended: Steve Bould, Chris Makin, Stefan Schwarz, Kevin Ball and John Oster. Just to make their day complete they face a side who are unbeaten in their last six matches.

Arsenal, too, will pay the penalty for their indiscretions at Highbury against Boro when Patrick Vieira begins a seven-match ban and Martin Keown is also suspended.

At Vicarage Road there is a relegation six-pointer as two former England managers meet. Graham Taylor's Watford are looking for their first win for two months, while Bobby Robson's Newcastle have derived only one point from their travels this term and could return to the bottom three if they lose today. If that is the future, no wonder Kevin Keegan looked so worried on Wednesday.