Football: Saunders is the main attraction: Phil Shaw expects a rush to the turnstiles for today's Premier and Barclays League matches

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PLATITUDES, not provocation, are the staple diet of football programmes. Which is why the headline in Wednesday's issue at Anfield caught the eye, particularly with Aston Villa due at Liverpool today. 'Success,' it gloated, 'as Villa pay for our flops.'

Eyes lit up in the press box. A new twist in the Dean Saunders saga? Ray Houghton and Steve Staunton condemned as flops? Alas no. The article turned out to be about how Liverpool's reserves had made Villa suffer for some poor results. Nevertheless, anyone doubting that Villa Park will be uncommonly crowded today runs the risk of being locked out.

The prospect of Saunders pitting his skills against the team he so recently left is likely to attract the Premier League's biggest gathering to date. The 'record', set by Arsenal's visit to Liverpool, stands at 34,961. All seats have been sold, and the possibility of Denmark's Torben Piechnik marking Villa's pounds 2.3m striker adds to the allure.

Ron Atkinson yesterday played down talk of the Welshman having something to prove. 'It's an important match for all the players, not just Dean - it's a cliche but it's a fact,' the Villa manager said. 'I'd sooner he got the winner against Norwich or Chelsea than a consolation goal against Liverpool.'

Atkinson, who believes Liverpool would have seen the best of Saunders had John Barnes not been plagued by injuries, trusts the Anfield influence will help transform Villa into contenders. 'When you sign someone from them they bring the best habit of all - they're used to winning things. I don't care what anyone says, Liverpool are still the biggest scalp to claim. That's why the atmosphere will be electric.'

For Graeme Souness, ringing the changes after Liverpool's worst start in 38 years, he offered encouragement. 'You have to be brave to do what he's done, at a place where they're not used to change, and he's as fearless as a manager as he was as a player. I'd be very surprised if they're not involved in one major trophy this season.'

Saunders, remarkably, will be facing one of his former clubs for the first time. On the strength of one appearance, Villa's 1-1 draw at Leeds, he expects to enjoy himself more with Villa. 'We've got a lot of flair in midfield in front of a strong back four, and we tend to hit teams on the break rather than pounding them,' he said. 'It seemed to suit to me better

than the way Liverpool played.'

The gate at White Hart Lane, where Tottenham face Manchester United, would have rivalled Villa Park but for a reduced capacity. The match could prove to be a watershed: for Spurs, victory would dispel doubts that they can beat the better-class opposition without Gascoigne and Lineker; for United it would represent an 18-point return from six games and fuel the belief, yet again, that this could be the season.

Just as the contributions of Saunders and Ian Rush are bound to be compared, the performances of Darren Anderton and Ryan Giggs will also make a fascinating contrast. Spurs' big-money buy from Portsmouth is living proof that in football, as in the economy, confidence is a vital currency.

It is in short supply at both Leeds and Arsenal, two of the title favourites, giving greater significance to their results in what would normally have been away bankers, against Southampton and Sheffield United respectively. At the top, which still has the feel of Fantasy League rather than Premier League, Norwich can dream on against a Sheffield Wednesday side ravaged by injuries.

The Football League may also report best crowds of the season in all divisions. Newcastle, the country's only 100 per cent side, will be looking to top their own 29,885 against Bristol City; West Bromwich take 6,700 fans and the Second Division leadership to Stoke, where the figure should comfortably beat 16,527; and Cardiff, fresh from a respectable European showing, need 8,400 against Gillingham to set a new standard in the Third.