Football: Robson on mission improbable

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The Independent Online
Managers struggling to find the right words to put to their charges before today's matches have one consolation: things could be a lot worse, they could be Bryan Robson.

What does the Middlesbrough player-manager say to encourage hope where there appears to be none? Bottom of the table, seven points adrift of a position of safety and with just one win in their last 16 Premiership matches, Boro are lurching from problem to problem like a tipsy agony aunt.

The mood among the players, if only a fraction of what you read in the papers is correct, is less than wholesome while rumours about Robson's position circulate round Teesside with a vengeance. Last week the club had to deny he was resigning, yesterday there was talk that Bruce Rioch was joining the backroom staff.

Meanwhile Fabrizio Ravanelli, whose nickname has changed locally from the white feather to the white flag, was quoted in Italian newspapers saying he wanted to return to Juventus. "I'm not escaping," he told La Repubblica. "I'm not a traitor. I want to leave my club in the Premier League where I found it. In June, well, it will be different. Fabrizio Ravanelli has stayed a Juventino and will always be."

All of which has come on top of the Premier League docking Boro three points for failing to fulfil their fixture at Blackburn, so you could say spirits have been better as they prepare to meet Sheffield Wednesday, who are 13 games into an unbeaten run.

"It's been a disappointing week for everyone," Robson said, "but there's no point in moping, we have to get on with the job. If we lie down there's going to be only one outcome and that's defeat.

"Wednesday are a good passing team, David Pleat has got them well organised and at the moment they're on a good run. They're difficult opponents but we've had three points taken off us and the sooner we get them back the better."

Robson has the consolation of being able to field his new pounds 2.7m Italian defender, Gianluca Festa, but such is the way things are going at the moment, his arrival will be more than matched by suspensions to Neil Cox and Craig Hignett. Wednesday must decide whether to include David Hirst and Jon Newsome from the start.

Luxury of choice is beyond Liverpool and Aston Villa as they prepare to meet at Anfield. The home team will be without John Barnes and Neil Ruddock because of injury and Michael Thomas and Phil Babb through suspension, while Villa are so short of midfield players that even Sasa Curcic - persona non grata since his "moving from Bolton was the biggest mistake of my life" comment - may play.

Liverpool have taken just 10 points from their last seven home games and will lose their hold on the top of the Premiership if they draw today and Manchester United win at Coventry. Nevertheless, Brian Little is more concerned by that run rather than uplifted by it.

"Liverpool are in a bad spell," the Villa manager said, "and I'm always wary of teams in bad spells. That's when they are at their most dangerous. The game is absolutely massive for us. We could go 10 points behind which would be a lot to make up on a team like Liverpool. On the other hand if we win we'll be in a useful position."

As for pounds 4m signing Curcic, Little added: "I had a good talk with his people and now I'm trying to get to the root of the problem. Something has clearly upset him, and I've got a rough idea what it is."

Kenny Dalglish should also have a better idea about Newcastle United's problems after today's match at Southampton, his first Premiership game since taking over from Kevin Keegan.

Dalglish has a reputation for being more roundhead than his cavalier predecessor but his message yesterday was: meet the new boss, same as the old boss. "You can only ask the players to play in a way that suits them," he said. "There won't be anything ripped up and thrown away on the scrapheap."

Coventry have had problems breaching that gap, no matter how narrow, and they will be without Dion Dublin for today's visit of Manchester United, and the forseeable future. He misses seven matches after being sent off twice in two weeks, while the visitors will be without David May who has a hernia operation today. Dennis Irwin returns for the champions.

Leicester's Matt Elliott, a club record pounds 1.6m signing, will make his debut against Wimbledon while Chelsea, who meet Derby, learned yesterday that their England Under-21 defender Michael Duberry will be missing for the rest of the season with an Achilles injury.

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