Football: United make up for lost time: Phil Shaw looks at the best of the weekend's football programme

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The Independent Online
IN LATE August, when both the Duchess of York and the Manchester United manager were caught in compromising positions, a cheeky back-page headline read: 'Fergie's Bottom'. United then scraped their first point in nine, against Ipswich, began climbing and go into today's return at Portman Road on top, as it were.

The same day, Aston Villa were held at home by Southampton and failed to win until the fifth match. Villa visit The Dell trailing United on goal difference alone, leaving the rest of the Premier League thankful that the top two were such slow starters.

Blackburn and Norwich, who visit respective resurgents Manchester City and Everton, are still handily placed, while Arsenal are bubbling under. But in terms of momentum and squad depth, all the signs point to Old Trafford or Villa Park.

That explains why the psychological factor is now in play; why both Alex Ferguson and Ron Atkinson keep insisting that the other's side should be rated favourites. Ferguson, whose team buckled under pressure last spring, cannot mask his emotions as Atkinson does, tending to project tension rather than defuse it.

Ferguson complained of the 'obscene effort' West Ham put in against United during last season's run-in. It will be no different this time, certainly not at Ipswich, who will be be uplifted by wins at Tranmere and Tottenham, and have the influential John Wark fit again.

Like Leeds a year ago, Villa are an experienced, balanced outfit inspired by a Ferguson reject - Paul McGrath in Gordon Strachan's elder statesman role. They have ostensibly the easier task, even allowing for the probable continued absence of Dalian Atkinson, although games with Southampton are invariably physical and Villa have not won there in 10 attempts.

If Arsenal repeat August's success at Liverpool, Graeme Souness's side will have had a double done over them for the third game running (the others were by Villa and Wimbledon). Liverpool last conceded a double three times in a season, let alone in succession, 23 years ago.

Leeds' 4-1 mauling at Middlesbrough was seen as an early-season aberration rather than an omen. Extraordinarly, the re-match is almost a relegation six-pointer in which Leeds unveil a new stand, or at least 2,600 of its 17,000 seats, and maybe a new Scandinavian striker.

Frank Strandli, who reminds Howard Wilkinson of the young David Hirst, will play if Lee Chapman is unfit. A pounds 350,000 buy from IK Start, Strandli could well become the first Leeds Supporters' Club member - he is enrolled in the Norwegian branch - to play for the club.

Nottingham Forest can end 23 weeks at the bottom and leave Oldham propping up the table by avenging a 5-3 defeat by Joe Royle's men. Roy Keane, advised by manager Brian Clough to find romance and settle down after a bad-tempered performance at Old Trafford on Wednesday, might settle for a goal rather than a girl today. Oldham have not managed one in four matches.

There is a classic in prospect in the Football League tomorrow: the meeting of Newcastle and Derby, Keegan and Cox, God on the Tyne and his mentor. Newcastle have won 32 out of 39 points available at home, and Derby, with nine goals in two cup trips in the past week, 25 of their 34 points away.

Even Newcastle are not immune to pressure, as another, more sober headline noted when they drew at Southend recently. 'Newcastle fail to open 17-point lead at top', it announced. Some failure.