Football: Six-pointer a fight for survival

HORSES WOULD not be allowed to do it but, what the hell, they are only footballers worth millions of pounds so today, for the second time in 48 hours, most of the country's teams will be straining muscles to the limit.

No wonder, as Brian Kidd points out, "the rest of Europe laughs at us".

Madness it may be, but you can hardly fault the soundness of the quality. Eight Premiership matches go ahead today and although the jewel in the programme, Chelsea versus Manchester United, will have to wait until tomorrow, the second, fourth, fifth and sixth teams will be in action.

As six points is the spread covering the top half dozen clubs, all their matches carry a heavy significance but the real six-pointer will not involve any of the elite but two teams scrapping for survival at the other end of the table.

Southampton, three successes in 19 matches, meet Nottingham Forest, who are one game away from breaking their own Premiership record of 16 matches without a win, at the City Ground with both sensing hopelessness for the vanquished.

"Neither of us can afford to lose," Dave Jones, the Saints manager said, echoing his opposite number and, with Charlton facing a resurgent Arsenal at the Valley and Coventry playing away at West Ham, the prospect of making real progress on the other strugglers beckons the winners.

The shades of spring 1997 have been drawn by Dave Bassett, the Forest manager, who can remember a 3-1 defeat that went a long way to spreading gloom in Nottingham and joy in Southampton once the blade had come down on the condemned.

"We're going to be edgy, Southampton are going to be edgy," Bassett said. "Who knows what will happen?

"We are cutting each other's throats. We don't dislike each other, Dave Jones is a really nice fella, but we're both competitive and neither of us wants to be in the bottom three at the end of the season."

If there was a sadder and more predictable sound than the thousandth playing of Slade's Christmas record on Boxing Day, then it was the Forest supporters chanting "Bassett out" at Old Trafford.

"I don't like it, but I understand it," Bassett, who has laboured under the disadvantage of having to use a squad weaker than the one he was promoted with, said. "They have had a pop at everyone else so they might as well have a go at the manager."

Forest's chances? "I'm always optimistic. I always believe I can get out of things."

A man with more grounds for optimism is John Gregory, whose Aston Villa team will retake the top of the Premiership if they defeat Sheffield Wednesday at home.

"We have had a few punches on the nose at various times," Gregory said in the wake of Saturday night's defeat at Blackburn, "and we have shown the characteristics to bounce back and win our next game. That is what we need to do against Wednesday.

"The Blackburn game was only our second away defeat in 15 Premiership matches, which isn't bad. But with the standards we set ourselves, it is always difficult to accept when we fall below it. So I am not the happiest man in the Premiership at the moment."

Standards have also fallen at Anfield if yesterday's allegations are true that the Liverpool players' Christmas party last week descended into a near orgy. Yet their manager Gerard Houllier must have been sorely tempted to book some strippers for the coach home, because Saturday's 3-1 win at Middlesbrough was arguably their best of the season.

They meet Newcastle today with both sides looking for a consistent shape to their season. Liverpool have had successive wins after their worst run in 44 years, while the Tynesiders switch from good to bad almost as quickly as Ruud Gullit flits from the Netherlands to the north-east.

A low was thoroughly explored on Saturday, and Gullit estimated Newcastle would not have scored if they had played for another hour against Leeds, but at least they have a player who makes Anfield fearful every time he sets foot in the place. A few Liverpool defenders will have seen Duncan Ferguson in their dreams last night and shuddered.

Not that Houllier was anything but upbeat yesterday. "The players have got to be aware that they have got 19 games in front of them, and if they want it individually and as a team, they can reach something," he said. "But they have got to keep that kind of spirit and that kind of work rate. I know their capabilities but it's one thing to say that I came here to win something with Liverpool and it's another to do the right thing for it."

Middlesbrough face a trip to Derby knowing that a point against Houllier's side would have set a new club record of 465 days since an away team won a league game at the Riverside Stadium. They, at least, are happy the congested programme gives them an early opportunity to make amends.

"If people thought we were going to go for another six months without losing a game, then I'm afraid they were mistaken," their captain, Andy Townsend, said. "The beauty with this particular one is that we've got 48 hours before we're at it again and we've got a chance to put it right."

Back to Kidd and a set of Blackburn players who have had to play at night twice over the holiday period, this time at Leicester.

"It's not humane playing again in 48 hours," Kidd said, "but that's the Premiership though, isn't it?

"That is how you get injuries, through fatigue. It would not happen abroad." It would not. But do not expect the authorities to listen. They shoot horses, don't they?