Football: Rovers poised to pounce should United falter: First leadership change of year possible while Swindon's fight for Premiership survival could end

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The Independent Online
WE ARE once more at that stage of the season when hearts flutter like supporters' scarves trailing from a car window. Nowhere will the palpitations - or the prize - be greater today than at The Dell or Selhurst Park.

Blackburn, who have trailed Manchester United from second place since 29 December and were 16 points adrift in January, could actually displace them at the Premiership summit. If Kenny Dalglish's team avoid defeat at Southampton and United lose to Wimbledon, or if the challengers win and the champions draw, there will be new leaders tonight.

Blackburn's task may look less arduous, but Southampton's parlous position tricked them into a 5-4 win at Norwich last week and Alan Ball is sure to have them fired up again. The return of Alan Shearer and Tim Flowers will merely intensify a fierce competitive edge.

United, who start 15 minutes after the other games finish, must hope that Blackburn repeat the ham-footed display they gave in losing 4-1 at Wimbledon last month. Alex Ferguson is not the type to need forewarning, though his own side usually do well away to the Dons, outclassing them last May and again in the FA Cup this year.

Much depends on how much United's midweek mauling of Oldham took out of them. They appeared fresh and tension-free, with a reserve by the name of Robson making a promising contribution.

Two issues which could be resolved this weekend concern movement between the Premiership and First Division, with Swindon and Crystal Palace set to swap places just as they did last spring. Should Swindon lose at Ipswich - who will need to abandon the flat back nine they employed at Liverpool to obtain the points required for virtual security - and Oldham win at home to West Ham, the Wiltshire club are down.

Indeed, Swindon could draw but still be relegated if Oldham win and Tottenham draw at Leeds tomorrow. Meanwhile, a Palace victory at Luton would mean Millwall (fifth) would have to win at home to Nottingham Forest (second) tomorrow to prevent Selhurst's landlords rejoining the elite. Forest have won only once in 17 visits to the old Den.

There are a lot of ifs and buts in there, however, and April is invariably a month for freak results born of sheer desperation. Witness the sudden surge of Manchester City, striving to make Norwich their fourth successive victims; or the four points Everton took at Aston Villa and West Ham, to which they should add at QPR; and the eight-match unbeaten run by Sheffield United, hosts to a Villa side with a solitary own goal to show for 700 minutes' Premiership action.

Curiously, Villa's reserves thrashed today's opponents 6-0 in midweek, when the Pontins League also staged Steve Bull's comeback after an 11-week lay-off. Bully scored twice for Wolves' second string against Notts County, who, by further coincidence, host his probable return in a real six-pointer. Wolves have not won at Meadow Lane since 1929-30.

Birmingham do not lack incentives to beat Bristol City. Quite apart from Blues' annual relegation battle, the fixture is their last at home before a run-in of four away games. As such it marks the end of the St Andrew's Kop, and will also be the last David Sullivan watches for a while. The club's owner enters hospital tomorrow, having put off coronary surgery in order to be there.

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