Football: Shearer aims to reel in United: Phil Shaw focuses on potential high points in the weekend's league and Coca-Cola Cup programme

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The Independent Online
LIKE the spate of FA Cup conquests by Football League teams, who have now beaten 21 supposed superiors in the two knock-out competitions, it is an indictment of the Premiership that Manchester United can prepare for the first leg of their Coca-Cola Cup semi-final at home to Sheffield Wednesday tomorrow without fretting unduly over today's results.

Alex Ferguson will, nevertheless, take more than a passing interest in the outcome of Blackburn's trip to Tottenham. In any normal season, Rovers' record would have been good enough to give them a chance of the championship, and some super-optimists at Ewood Park believe United can be caught.

They argue that victory today would see Kenny Dalglish's side erode United's lead for the first time since Christmas, leaving them 'only' 10 points behind with a game in hand - and the leaders have yet to visit Blackburn. Anything less and even Ferguson, whose determination not to be seen counting chickens is professionalism bordering on paranoia, can relax.

If Spurs learn from the way Charlton returned Alan Shearer to the realm of mortality, the hypothesis may begin to sound like hyperbole. It is a sizeable 'if': after nine matches without a home win, but armed with the knowledge that they beat Blackburn in the Coca-Cola Cup, Spurs will look to their new centre-back, Kevin Scott, to shackle his fellow Geordie.

Fourth-placed Newcastle, smarting from their demise at Luton, also return to the scene of their exit from the lesser competition. When they last visited Wimbledon, Andy Cole was missing after falling out with Kevin Keegan. Now the 30- goal striker is injured, and the fixture visitors do not relish takes on an even more formidable look.

Two early victims of a lower-division FA Cup coup, Everton and Manchester City, are starting to put the experience behind them, and will be greeted by revivalist fervour before their home games with Ipswich and West Ham. Whether the players can sustain the mood, generated by the respective arrivals of Mike Walker and Francis Lee, is another matter.

Maine Road, particularly, will be anxious for news of the relegation six-pointer at Oldham, where Chelsea contest a collision of two surprising replay survivors. Aston Villa, exempted from embarrassment in the cups thus far, build up to next week's difficult double-header at Tranmere (Coca-Cola) and Bolton (FA) by receiving Swindon, 22nd but stirring.

In the pick of the First Division fixtures Crystal Palace, five points clear at the top, face an awkward match at Grimsby. Last Saturday, Grimsby won at second-placed Charlton, who then won at Blackburn - all of which, Mariners' fans would doubtless insist, makes them at least the second-best team in the land.

Forest go into the 86th Nottingham derby with 35 wins against County's 27. Meadow Lane will be packed, an event almost as rare as two former goalkeepers in opposition on the bench. Fewer than 20 custodians have managed League clubs since the war, making today's Second Division meeting of erstwhile England rivals Ray Clemence (Barnet) and Peter Shilton (Plymouth) all the more intriguing.

Tomorrow's match at Old Trafford is also a reunion of sorts, United and Wednesday having contested the League Cup final in 1991 when Ron Atkinson's Owls won at Wembley. Despite Wednesday's fine cup record under Trevor Francis and the current climate of shocks, over two games it is likely to take something extraordinary to stop Ferguson's men justifying their status as

4-1 shots for the treble.

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