Football: United prepare to storm Highbury

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WHEN SIR ALEX FERGUSON surveyed Wembley's dressing- room three weeks ago what he saw left him grimly satisfied. Manchester United had lost the Charity Shield, and he hates being beaten, but his players were suffering too. "They were sick," he said.

It is unlikely it was the loss of a prize, a trifle, that upset his charges but the identity of the team who had inflicted the defeat. United's players like losing to Arsenal about as much as their supporters like coming second best to Liverpool. United have been lacerated by that edge in recent times because Arsenal have won five and lost only one of their last seven meetings, and the one Gunners reverse, in last season's FA Cup semi-final replay, required a goal from Ryan Giggs wrapped in genius. Precedent favours a home win, the injury situation something else. Arsenal will be without their spine - Tony Adams, Emmanuel Petit and Dennis Bergkamp - and although United are bereft of Mark Bosnich and Gary Neville this might be an early opportunity to put distance between themselves and their most potent challengers.

Ferguson is the first to say championships are won in April not August, yet even he acknowledged tomorrow's match carries considerable significance. "Playing it now doesn't detract from the fact that winning these games is very crucial in the championship," he said.

United lost 3-0 at Highbury last season in what was their worst performance in their treble season, but if they avoid losing tomorrow they will set a club record of 15 consecutive League games unbeaten. Against that, Arsenal have laid the foundations for their last five championships by winning this fixture.

Newcastle United have won championships, but there are not many alive now who saw the last in 1926-7, and very few believe the famine will end with the dawning of the new millennium. They say there is nothing more sinister than a chairman's vote of confidence but Ruud Gullit might demur. Having the principal shareholder disrupt his holiday to soothe nerves is a lot more ominous for a manager, and Sir John Hall duly arrived on Tyneside this week.

Gullit may or may not have offered to resign on the way back from Sunday's 4-2 defeat at Southampton, but if he loses again he will surely be edging closer to the exit. Newcastle have not won in the Premiership since 3 April, a barren run stretching to 10 games, and they are bottom of the table with a large zero in the points column. Obliging opponents they have today, too, those arch embarrassers, Wimbledon.

Chelsea will not have appreciated being discounted as contenders by Leicester City's Robbie Savage, who said they could not handle the physical challenge of the Premiership, but opponents will not have ignored it either. Aston Villa travel to Stamford Bridge and they will not enter softly, softly.

Villa will go a long way to dispelling doubts that linger from their post-Christmas decline if they win at the Bridge, a citadel that only West Ham breached in the League last season. "We are looking forward to this match to judge our progress," John Gregory, the Villa manager, said.

If the tackles are likely to fly in north and west London, there will also be a few at the Riverside, where Paul Ince faces his old club Liverpool. Ince has disparaged the manager who let him go from Anfield, Gerard Houllier, clearly resenting being surplus to requirements. Liverpool, meanwhile, will not wish to be steamrollered by Ince after succumbing so limply against Watford last weekend.

Leeds United play host to Sunderland with their manager, David O'Leary, warning his team that the visitors have learned an important lesson from their opening day 4-0 drubbing at Chelsea. "Peter Reid's team will be tough, strong, and they'll be keen to avoid what happened at Stamford Bridge," he said. "I think the Chelsea game woke them up to the Premier League."

It is an important day for Robbie Keane, who is likely to make his debut Coventry at home to Derby after his pounds 6m transfer from Wolves, and Kevin Davies, who returns to Southampton at Everton after a miserable year at Blackburn.

Twenty-one months ago Davies scored an exquisite goal at Goodison, weaving his way through the Everton rearguard. Today he would be happy with a simple tap-in.

Gullit hits out, page 26

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