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Football: United revitalised by break

IT SAYS something about the acquisitiveness of Manchester United that they can stop playing for a fortnight and still win honours. Alex Ferguson was awarded the freedom of Aberdeen last week while Dwight Yorke got the keys of Port of Spain on a trip to Trinidad and Tobago which prompts the question what will they achieve when they make it to the pitch.

We will have a better idea by a week tomorrow because by then United will have met Wimbledon in the Premiership, Juventus in the Champions' League and Arsenal in the FA Cup and the treble will either be in sharper focus or have disappeared.

United meet Wimbledon at Selhurst Park today with Ferguson believing his men have benefited from the commitments that halted play in the Premiership. "The lads are buzzing after their time away," he said. "The international breather has given them a chance to get away from the pressures of the club and all the challenges here.

"Most of them did well and the England lads in particular are on top of the world. The only one who returned without a win was Peter Schmeichel, but I watched Denmark's 2-1 defeat by Italy and, to be honest, the Danes battered them. They were really unlucky to lose."

United will attempt to extend a 19-match unbeaten run without Jaap Stam and Ryan Giggs while Wimbledon, who have not won a point since beating Sheffield Wednesday on the night manager Joe Kinnear had a heart attack, will hope the challenge of meeting one of the Premiership's better teams will halt a three-match sequence of defeats. "The way we've been playing we need something to spark us," their midfielder Robbie Earle said. "It will be a big atmosphere, a full house against arguably the best team in the country. I know our players will raise their game."

So will Southampton, who meet United's closest challengers, Arsenal, believing The Dell will be the key if they are to survive. They are unbeaten at home in 1999 and will be facing the champions who are bereft of Dennis Bergkamp (virus) and Emmanuel Petit (suspended) and could also be without Marc Overmars (injured).

In contrast Chelsea, the third team in the championship equation, have good news regarding injuries for the visit to Charlton and Gustavo Poyet could return after three months on the sidelines. "We've got an easier run-in than the other three clubs," the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, said yesterday. "Leeds have to come here next month so if we beat them we'll kill them off and definitely be in the Champions' League."

Fourth-placed Leeds, whose David O'Leary was named manager of the month yesterday, have been compared to Don Revie's great side of the 1970s in recent weeks and they can match tf they record their seventh successive victory when they meet Nottingham Forest this afternoon.

"It's been a long, long time since our profile was so high and with so many people talking about us in such glowing terms," O'Leary said. "It's reflected in the fact we're on Sky TV so much and also in the crowds."

At home against the Premiership's whipping-boys ought to be a straightforward task, but Leeds' ranks are depleted. David Batty and Alfie Haaland are suspended for one match, with the latter having also been fined pounds 2,500 by an FA disciplinary panel this week for 11 bookings, while Steve McPhail is on international duty with the Republic of Ireland in the World Under- 20 Championship in Nigeria.

Liverpool used to expect to be in the top four but not these days and supporters have been left contemplating a miserable season of no honours and no European place with the reflection: "There's only two games left for us now."

They mean home games against their bitterest rivals, Everton and Manchester United, but juicy targets that they are, these opponents reflect Liverpool's weakness: an inability to win matches that count. It is more than five years since Everton, who take the quick trip across Stanley Park today, lost a Merseyside derby while United have not lost to them since December 1995.

They say that form does not count in Merseyside derbies, for which both sides must be truly grateful. Everton were lamentably negative at Old Trafford a fortnight ago while Liverpool cannot welcome the close season soon enough.

"People keep mentioning our record against Liverpool, so we are aware of it," Walter Smith, the Everton manager, said, "but it won't matter when we kick off. If anything, it can add to Liverpool's determination to do well."

Middlesbrough will be equally determined at Ewood Park and not just because a win would push Blackburn deeper into trouble and themselves further from it. This fixture was the one they failed to turn up for two seasons ago because of illness and the three points they were docked as a consequence caused them to spend a season in the First Division.