Football: Raised voices sing out for needy league points: Henry Winter views Easter as no time to be coasting

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The Independent Online
FUN, fear and loathing are lending an extra edge to terrace chants as the season's crescendo builds. Already this week Nottingham Forest, who could be travelling to Bolton and Birmingham next term, have been regaled with 'You're worse than San Marino'. At Carrow Road, Manchester United supporters, dreading the thought of a former manager denying them the title, screamed 'Are you watching Big Fat Ron?' as Giggs, Cantona and Co tore into Norwich.

The volume and volubility will rise over the Easter programme - by the time the holiday traffic returns from the coast, Atkinson's Villa could be seven points clear with four to play. It is an unlikely scenario but the top trio - and Norwich cannot yet be totally excluded from the equation - know the perils of slipping now. Norwich found out again yesterday while United need look back only to last Easter. With two games in hand on a Leeds side who were only a point ahead, the Reds were sitting pretty. The ensuing collapse came straight from the 'What Happened Next?' cutting-room.

But the scars are not visible. The arrival of Eric Cantona, the remarkable maturing of Ryan Giggs, and the redeployment of Brian McClair have given United self-belief and a road-map-full of attacking avenues.

Steel, as well as guile and goals, is equally evident in Alex Ferguson's fine assembly. The commodity was clearly shown in, appropriately, the Steel City, on a misty Boxing Day when United negated Wednesday's three-goal advantage to secure a point through McClair and Cantona, who undermined Michel Platini's premise that the tall Parisian wanted to score only beautiful goals with one of the scruffiest strikes ever, a ping-pong in-off while sprawling on the ground.

Wednesday supporters were silenced by that equaliser but, with two trips to Wembley beckoning, they will be in good voice for today's all-ticket engagement at Old Trafford. If the visitors were at full strength, another classic would be in the offing, but with Hirst, Warhurst and Palmer out, Harkes rested and Bright doubtful, Wednesday lack the punch which briefly floored United at home.

Chris Waddle, whose raking crosses to the far post so troubled Paul Parker last time, will roam and probe but, as at Wembley, may prove most dangerous from set-pieces.

On Monday, while Villa visit Arsenal, United travel to Coventry who are being billed as the king-makers or breakers. The Sky Blues may have already done Ferguson a favour by 'getting a result' at Villa today although a repeat of their Boxing Day mauling of Atkinson's men is exceedingly unlikely, such is the corporate spirit and purpose pervading Villa's every move.

'I don't think any of us turned up that day (at Highfield Road),' Paul McGrath, the Villa defender, said yesterday. 'We were awful and deserved our hammering. But now we want to redress the balance.' The continuing duel between Dalian Atkinson and Dean Saunders for 'Goal of the Month' should further fuel the feeling within Villa Park that this is their year.

One unexpected figure may influence the destiny of the inaugural Premier League title. Mick Quinn started the season in Newcastle's reserves, but since joining Coventry has confirmed his class as a top-flight finisher, an opening spate of goals inspiring the ditty 'He's fat, he's round, he scores at every ground'. A few more would ruin the fat cats' digestion and renew the Canaries' appetite.

For once, there are teams you would pay to watch at both ends. Mathematically, anyone in the lower half could go down but Forest, marooned at the bottom with Brian Clough's well of inspiration seemingly dry, are quoted by William Hill as 5-1 on favourites to end their 16-year association with the elite.

The calamity for the club would be far-reaching; income and gates would drop while principal performers like Roy Keane, Stuart Pearce and Nigel Clough would become instant targets for other clubs. Keane is even reported to have a get-out clause in his contract if Forest fall.

Starting at QPR today, a Clough side missing seven first-teamers need a minimum of 10 points from a possible 18 to reach the safety-zone benchmark of 46. It looks very much like mission impossible.

TOP THREE TEAMS'

REMAINING FIXTURES

ASTON VILLA: Today Coventry (h); 12 April Arsenal (a); 18 Manchester City (h); 21 Blackburn (a); 2 May Oldham (h); 8 QPR (a).

MANCHESTER UNITED: Today Sheffield Wed (h);

12 April Coventry (a); 17 Chelsea (h); 21 Crystal Palace (a); 3 May Blackburn (h); 8 Wimbledon (a).

NORWICH: 14 Leeds (h); 19 Ipswich (a); 1 May Liverpool (h); 8 Middlesbrough (a).

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