Football: United set for poignant return to summit: Trevor Haylett looks at the weekend football programme

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The Independent Online
MANCHESTER UNITED could become the new leaders of the Premier League at tea-time tonight ('new' in as much as Norwich were this morning's No 1). United have held the position twice before and for most of January, though neither of their previous ascents this season produced the sense of poignancy that may be felt around Old Trafford today.

On this day 35 years ago the heart of the country's finest young team perished in the Munich air disaster. The Manchester United soul survived and grew stronger; the hope and ambition embodied in 1958 by a youthful Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton are recreated now for a new generation of supporters by Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs.

Victory over a Sheffield United side desperate for points at the other end of the table - particularly if the verdict from Villa Park was equally favourable - would help convince the doubters that at last they have a side capable of matching Sir Matt Busby's class of '67, although there is barely time to draw breath before they are in action again.

On Monday United go to Elland Road for a fixture which conjures up memories of their race to the championship line last spring and has added interest in the Cantona factor, Eric the Frenchman returning to the ground where once he was worshipped but now must expect something less kind than an 'Ooh-aah'.

'I guess I'll score only twice out of respect for all the things they gave to me and that they'll let me score twice out of respect for what I gave to them,' he said.

Leeds will be relieved today to miss out on another reunion with a previous ally. Vinnie Jones, suspended for the third time this season and with six cautions in eight games, has to watch their visit to Wimbledon from the stands.

Ipswich's journey to face an Aston Villa side who, with Norwich idle, can themselves claim top spot, provides memories of their head-to-head for the 1981 championship. Earlier this season they shared the points at Portman Road. The same programme saw United lose at Bramall Lane while Nottingham Forest beat Liverpool, which may have proved an accurate portent of the Merseysiders' fate but was no indicator of what would befall Forest.

Their Anfield return is likely to be just as tight. Despite winning at Highbury, Liverpool will be haunted by their last two home defeats. Forest, progressing in the FA Cup and at last climbing the table, will fancy their chances.

Oldham's hopes of making their own climb from bottom spot have been hit by another goalkeeping problem. Andy Dibble, the loan signing they thought could keep out Chelsea, has been recalled by Manchester City because of an injury to Martyn Margetson, leaving the manager Joe Royle reliant again on the 20-year-old Paul Gerrard, whose extended senior baptism has seen 22 goals fly past him in 10 games.

With their new Russian goalkeeper, Dimitri Kharin, ruled out for at least another week with a thigh injury, Chelsea are grateful that Kevin Hitchcock is expected to recover from a damaged knee.

Tomorrow Crystal Palace and Arsenal contest the first leg of their Coca-Cola Cup semi-final at Selhurst Park. They then have more than a month to wait for the return, a delay which has been criticised by the Palace manager Steve Coppell, who is in favour of moves to bring next season's competition forward with a final around the turn of the year.

Many clubs believe a competition which starts in August has lost its fizz by the time it reaches Wembley in April. 'You could argue Manchester United's success in winning the cup last season worked against their efforts in the League,' Coppell said.

'As it stands now we will almost have lost interest by the time the second leg comes round. We will have to build ourselves up all over again and it gives a perfect excuse for those who can say our players might be saving themselves for the cup because of two or three indifferent results in between. I would like to see the trophy given a special day for the final, such as New Year's Day.'

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