Football: United ready for another examination: Liverpool may start with Babb as they provide champions with a third major challenge of the week

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WITH all respect to Doncaster and Hereford, who were last night disputing the points in the Third Division, a whole day without high-class football has almost gained the rarity value of an Everton victory. So, after a wait of 24 hours, the Premiership swings back into action with a weekend programme that ought to satisfy even those supporters already suffering burn-out fatigue, as two of the game's northern giants renew rivalry and three of the newest recruits to the top table come south to defend their positions of strength.

After the strain of disputing supremacy with Leeds and the rigours of a nervy European Champions' League experience in midweek, Manchester United would probably have wished for a less taxing examination than the one which pits them against the enemy from along the East Lancs Road.

Liverpool will note that Eric Cantona is back for United after another suspension-enforced absence and shape their defence accordingly which could see Phil Babb winning a starting-place for the first time since he abandoned Coventry's relegation fight for something more rewarding.

The heat and passion of a United-Liverpool meeting is why the likes of Babb and John Scales chose to call in the removal men two weeks ago. That and a weighty wage packet which will help cushion the feeling this afternoon that they are not the most popular figures in Manchester. That remains the preserve of Cantona and also Paul Ince, and it is the midfielder's influence, acclaimed by Alex Ferguson as the crucial element in Wednesday's defeat of IFK Gothenburg, that Liverpool will be most wary of.

Tomorrow London hosts two games between clubs who were all distracted this week by European ambitions. Chelsea and Newcastle both filled their boots and even Arsenal hit three, which on this season's reckoning should leave them blank for a few Premiership outings.

Only Blackburn missed out and, stung by defeat to a bunch of part- timers from Sweden, Shearer and Sutton will be primed to show Stamford Bridge that, at home or abroad, they are nobody's poor relations.

After spiking Klinsmann's guns on Monday, Southampton now have to find a way to halt Nottingham Forest's splendid away form, which has carried them into Newcastle's slipstream. Tottenham had hoped that their latest foreign signing, their second Romanian, Gheorghe Popescu, would have been cleared to make his debut at Leicester but, still awaiting a work permit, the first sighting their fans will have will be on Wednesday at Watford in the Coca-Cola Cup.