Football: United look rested and in threatening form

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Boxing Day was originally an occasion for giving and the Premiership's leading clubs adhered to tradition on Thursday, sprinkling points like needles from a festive tree. There was just one exception and no one was surprised to discover the man behind that piece of parsimony was football's old skinflint, Alex Ferguson.

Only Manchester United won out of the top seven two days ago and suddenly they are looming like ghosts of Christmas past in third place. They go into today's match against Leeds United five points behind the leaders Liverpool with a game in hand and with the momentum of nine goals without reply in their last two matches.

"We've got to keep this going," , said Ferguson, whose hunger and energy to succeed is one of the wonders of the game. "It's a particularly demanding time. We must ensure that we are still among the challengers at the end of the festive period."

Ferguson's dilemma today will be whether to start with Andy Cole, who underlined his return to fitness from two broken legs by scoring in the 4-0 defeat of Nottingham Forest. The pounds 7m striker came on for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the City Ground but, as the Norwegian has scored three times in the last two matches, dropping him will not be a decision taken lightly.

Not that sentiment usually clouds Ferguson's decisions and he now has the luxury of seeing past disruptions to his team as a blessing. "Nobody apart from Eric Cantona and David Beckham has played a lot of games," he said. "All the rest have had a mixed and short season and they are looking good and fresh."

The last time the champions met today's opponents, a 4-0 win ended Howard Wilkinson's managership at Elland Road although, if there is one match that spurs the Leeds players on, it is this one. Last Christmas they produced their best performance of the season for a 3-1 victory that included a goal from Tony Yeboah. The Ghanaian came on for his first senior outing for nine months against Coventry on Thursday and he is likely to start this afternoon.

It required only one encounter with second-placed Arsenal for Kevin Pressman to reduce his view of their championship chances. The Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper had a largely untroubled night against the Gunners on Thursday and said: "If I was a betting man, I'd put my money on Liverpool. They're the best-balanced side we've met this season."

As for Arsenal, he added: "They're hard to break down," which is where we were before Arsene Wenger arrived promising style with resilience. Quite what the Gunners' manager made of his team's performance against Wednesday is not known because he did not turn up for an after-match press conference and, following Ferguson's similar non-appearance the previous week, Hillsborough is becoming the Bermuda Triangle of visiting managers' thoughts.

Wednesday have not lost since 12 October and their manager, David Pleat, has gained enough from that to rotate his players, ensuring they stay fresh. Regi Blinker and Andy Booth were rested against Arsenal and are likely to play at Chelsea, who will be without the suspended Franck Leboeuf and Dennis Wise.

Nevertheless he is not entirely satisfied. "I keep reading about Leeds United that you need to sort out the back door before you look at the front," he said, "and we've become hard to beat. Our problem now is scoring. I think we've got some goals in our locker."

Perhaps, as Ruud Gullit seems to suggest, it is simply becoming more difficult for teams to impose themselves. Chelsea's player-manager is impressed with the quality of the Premiership, saying it is improving fast. "It's very open. Perhaps it's because there are more foreigners now, maybe because of the way England played in Euro 96.

"But whatever the reason there's a great deal more attention on the Premiership from abroad now. The standard is certainly better. Clubs are spending money to try to get results, and that's got to be good."

Coventry got both goals and a good result against Leeds, securing only their second win in 32 attempts at Elland Road. Attention will be turned today on their goalkeeper. Steve Ogrizovic, 39, will make his 544th appearance for the Sky Blues against Middlesbrough, breaking a 26-year-old record set by his former manager, George Curtis.

He has been around long enough to have played with and against Graeme Souness and Martin O'Neill, who will be pitting their sides, Southampton and Leicester, against the clubs where they had their greatest playing days. There seems little chance of them getting misty-eyed, however.

Souness plays host to the leaders Liverpool tomorrow, saying: "It's just the first of a lot of tough games," while O'Neill will prepare for the visit of bottom-placed Nottingham Forest with scarcely a thought for the club with whom he won championship and European Cup-winning medals. "I enjoyed my time at Forest and in normal circumstances I would like to see them play away from trouble," he said. "But it's a dog-eat-dog world." It will be the theme of the day.

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