Football: Progress test at Tottenham

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEK a monumental event occurred. Not just Michael Johnson's world record but Tottenham Hotspur appearing at the top of the Premiership without pigs doing a loop the loop round White Hart Lane.

Even their manager, George Graham, was mildly surprised and quickly doused any prospect of rampaging optimism by insisting that the top six is the best Spurs can hope for. Even so it is a tribute to his management that he has transformed a team of talented misfits into a cohesive unit in less than a year.

Leeds, too, for all David O'Leary's good work, are testament to Graham's ability as he laid the foundations at Elland Road before moving to London last autumn. Both clubs now stalk the top three of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea and today their meeting will give a better idea which is more likely to intrude on that triumvirate.

The game has many undercurrents - Graham will think he has wandered into the wrong ground if he does note hear the word "Judas" some time this afternoon - but the most intriguing is another confrontation with O'Leary, his former No 2 at Elland Road whom he wanted to bring to Spurs in a similar role last October.

O'Leary stayed with Leeds to become manager and Graham insists they still had an amicable relationship even though they fell out when the Dutch midfielder Willem Korsten joined Tottenham in the summer after rejecting the Yorkshire club's offer to make his loan period at Elland Road a permanent one.

Graham said: "There is no ill-feeling between David and I, not really. I always knew he would make a top manager and he's proving that at Leeds now."

He could not resist a little barb, however, adding: "They have spent a lot of money since I left and that's typical of my career as a manager. As soon as I left Arsenal they splashed out as well."

Arsenal splashed down rather than out against Manchester United last Sunday, a result that was made no more palatable by Tottenham's high position. They meet Liverpool at Anfield today anxious to ensure they slip no further behind the European champions and the chances are they will have familiar faces to help them.

Arsene Wenger is likely to reunite Arsenal's famous four of Lee Dixon, Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn after Adams played a full 90 minutes for the reserves on Tuesday in his comeback following a double- hernia operation last month. Winterburn is also recovering well from a bruised knee, which has kept him out of the last three games.

The rocks of ages may meet sprightly and gifted youth because Michael Owen is fit again after a hamstring injury and will make an appearance at some point even if Gerard Houllier sticks with the side who beat Leeds 2-1 on Monday.

Chelsea may relish Milan in the Champions' League but they have a far more down-to-earth test today at Selhurst Park against troubled Wimbledon. That, according to their manager Gianluca Vialli, has to be the priority. "All the players know we have to put Europe away and think about the Premiership," he said. "We have a tough game and we have to concentrate on it."

Particularly as Wimbledon are smarting from a 4-0 rout at Everton. "After a severe defeat like that, it's hard," their manager, Egil Olsen, said. "I'm trying to analyse the match video and learn from the mistakes. We have to do something about our defending first of all. We can't continue to concede three or four goals every match."

Newcastle do not play until Monday but it does not mean their position cannot get any worse. Only Sheffield Wednesday lie beneath Ruud Gullit's team and if they get a point at Southampton they will move above them.

Danny Wilson has been bemoaning injuries all season and today is no different as Des Walker, Gilles De Bilde and Wim Jonk may miss the game. "If you keep changing personnel it makes life difficult," the Wednesday manager said. "That's a reason, not an excuse. We look disjointed because we're making changes. But we'll keep going. We'll get our heads down, not jack it in and come through it. I'm very positive."

Southampton may give a debut to their new pounds 2m signing from Arsenal, Luis Boa Morte.

West Ham have an unenviable record at Valley Parade of three successive defeats although it is indicative of Bradford's unfamiliar circumstances that the sequence stretches over 50 years. West Ham, too, are exploring the relative unknown after qualifying for the Uefa Cup with this week's win at Metz in the Intertoto Cup and it is the Hammers who Bradford's manager, Paul Jewell, wants to model his club on. "They are a good side and are on a high. We don't want to look too far ahead but West Ham have done it gradually," he said.

Walter Smith has not had the easiest of times since he moved to Everton but 4-1 and 4-0 wins at Goodison this week almost brought a smile to his lugubrious features. "We've got to take that kind of form away from home," he said prior to the trip to Derby that follows two away defeats.

Middlesbrough, by contrast, have a 100 per cent away record this season, with wins at Wimbledon and Derby, although they will do well to preserve that at Aston Villa, who could be top of the Premiership tonight if they win comprehensively.

Uefa Cup draw, page 30