Football: United out to muddy the waters: Power at the top

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The Independent Online
HAVING contrived to complicate things at the privileged end of the Premiership, Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers can succeed in muddying the waters down at the bottom this afternoon. Relegation-fighting opponents Oldham and Everton need the points just as badly and less than 48 hours after the epic from Ewood Park this might be as good a time as any to be facing the top two.

Even by the normal demands of an over-bearing fixture programme it is asking a lot of Blackburn to find the mental and physical capacity for another tough assignment so soon after lowering United's colours. Doubtless Mike Walker will make the same point in the Goodison dressing-room.

The Everton manager has already claimed one success over Kenny Dalglish this season while with Norwich but predictions about a repeat have to be shelved until it is known how today's hosts have come through their own Saturday ordeal.

A thrashing by five goals at Sheffield Wednesday is comfortably short of the best preparation and with off-the- field problems caused by Walker's departure from Carrow Road it has been a difficult transition for him. His team had looked to have played their way out of trouble but one point out of a possible 12 has awakened the manager's worst fears.

'It is hard to put your finger on why we played like that at Hillsborough, having done so well to earn a draw against Aston Villa,' he said.

Six days before they meet in the FA Cup semi-final, Oldham make the short journey to Old Trafford looking to exploit the same fault lines that have forced another revision of Manchester United's chances for both the remaining prizes.

Of course there is no Alan Shearer or anybody like him in the opposition ranks but United will be wary of a collective spirit that has carried Oldham to a sequence of 13 games with only one defeat. More of that form today will also give United cause for serious Wembley contemplation.

Not so long ago Oldham were reluctant goalscorers but seven have found the target in the last two games to lift them clear of the bottom three. Craig Fleming, who has missed the last six games with an ankle injury, returns.

Alex Ferguson, the United manager, may go for experience and recall Brian Robson or he could bring in Brian McClair or Dion Dublin up front as Mark Hughes's partner in the continued absence of Eric Cantona.

He said: 'All games are hard now. Oldham have hit form recently and will be more keen than ever to continue against us. But I feel we can bounce back after Saturday's upset.'

Defeats for both the lesser lights in the all-Lancashire confrontations would leave Everton and Oldham at the mercy of Manchester City and Sheffield United, who look to follow up impressive weekend wins when they play Southampton and Arsenal respectively. A City win would leave Alan Ball's Dell boys even more down in the mouth.

Tottenham have done themselves a power of good with two successive victories on their travels. Now to reclaim some of the fan-faith that was forfeited in a dismal winter programme they must carry the momentum forward at home to West Ham.

White Hart Lane has its first sighting of Teddy Sheringham for almost six months and a goal within three minutes of his comeback at Norwich assures him of a top-drawer reception. It was the most encouraging of starts but according to this scorer supreme all is not yet well.

'I've seen several specialists and they all tell me I now have a perfectly sound knee, but I know in myself it is still not right,' Sheringham said. 'It was great to be back and score a goal because it was terrible being on the sidelines so long. You begin to feel you'll never be ready but I can't yet do everything I want to do and we are just going to see how it goes.'

Graham Taylor takes his new and winning Wolves to Oxford looking for a rapid hat- trick return to club management. The First Division leaders, Crystal Palace, do not play until Wednesday so Nottingham Forest have the opportunity to cut the difference to five points.

Reading, six points ahead in the Second Division, carry Plymouth's hopes all the way to Stockport because victory would make Peter Shilton's side a little more secure in the second automatic promotion spot.

More football, pages 30, 31

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