Football: Ravanelli's absence threatens Boro revival

Matt Tench looks at the impact of this weekend's games on Premiership issues
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The Independent Online
While the Premiership's top two bask in their continental achievements this weekend, those at the opposite end of table are more interested in the fate of one of last season's European Cup winners.

Fabrizio Ravanelli's decision to swop Turin for Teesside has not been without its teething troubles but, as the former Juventus striker has rediscovered his scoring form in recent weeks, so his Middlesbrough side have belatedly began to play as well in the league as they have in the cups. The renaissance is now threatened by injury, with Ravanelli returning to Italy for treatment on an injured hamstring.

Having moved off the bottom on Wednesday, Middlesbrough were hoping to have made further progress in their next three fixtures - at home to Chelsea and Nottingham Forest today and on Monday, and away to the FA Premiership on Wednesday (when they appeal against the three points they have had deducted.) They must now do so without their leading goalscorer.

Bryan Robson, the Boro manager, was optimistic yesterday that Ravanelli would be fit for the Coca-Cola Cup final a fortnight tomorrow, but Ravanelli's immediate priority is being available for Italy's two World Cup qualifying games in the next 10 days.

With international commitments accounting for all the top flight fixtures over Easter next weekend, the Premiership has been deprived of the traditional moment when the relegation battle intensifies. In a sense, then, the basement scrapes begin today, with two crucial games given added urgency by Middlesbrough's recent rise.

The first is at Highfield Road, where a Coventry City side whose most recent performance appalled even their own manager entertain West Ham. The 4-0 defeat at Newcastle means they have dropped 15 points out of the last 18. Their visitors have received fresh impetus since the signing of the strikers John Hartson and Paul Kitson, but Coventry would do well to keep an eye on Mark Rieper as well. He has scored in his last three games against them.

The second fixture with six-point appeal pitches the team that nearly signed Chris Waddle against the one that actually did. Nottingham Forest's search for saviours has taken them across Europe, but they were unable to secure the services of the man playing up the M1 at Bradford. Instead Waddle will be making his debut against them for Sunderland.

Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, has promised to field a full-strength side at Everton, rather than rest players as he did following the home game against Porto in the European Cup quarter-finals.

"The team were exhausted after the effort they put in in the first leg. It won't affect us again as we have changed our preparation since then," Ferguson said. Whether his team will include Ryan Giggs, Ferguson will not know until shortly before kick-off. Giggs is still recovering from the hamstring strain which forced him to miss the game in Portugal.

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