Football: United sitting pretty: Boxing Day preview

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The Independent Online
AS A measure of Manchester United's Premiership pre-eminence try the fact that no side since Tottenham's 1960-61 Double diamonds have held as forbidding a lead going into a Boxing Day programme as the 12-point margin currently separating Alex Ferguson's master craftsmen from their nearest challengers, Leeds. Can anyone seriously argue that it is not all over bar the pouting? writes Rob Steen.

Theoretically, Leeds' trip to Old Trafford on New Year's Day still holds some significance, although the Association of Football Statisticians is arguing otherwise, contending that the only team ever to squander such a head start were Arsenal, who in 1986-87 let a seven-point advantage slip. Blackburn can bank on the Stretford Enders being in cocky voice on Sunday.

To Ferguson, Leeds' 1-1 draw at Newcastle constituted 'a good result for us', keeping his team on course to settle the title dispute before 12 April, the date on which Liverpool completed the job in 1983 to set a modern-day record. 'I keep saying this is an important month for United with games against our closest rivals, but it's even more testing for them. Blackburn also have to play Leeds and Newcastle - they can't all win.'

John Fashanu's form has declined markedly since the White Hart Lane injury to Gary Mabbutt - the Wimbledon striker has not scored in five games - but Phil Neal will be looking to end a more significant barren run at Selhurst Park: his first away win as Coventry manager. Injuries to his prolific scorer, Mick Quinn (Achilles), and defender David Rennie (ankle) may prolong the agony.

Sheffield United, sinking fast after winning just one of their last 16 Premiership games and now occupying 19th place, are hardly likely to be buoyant at the prospect of the steely Julian Dicks reinforcing the Liverpool back four at Bramall Lane, where the uncompromising full-back is planning his first outing for two months after recovering from the knee surgery that has restricted him to seven appearances for the Merseysiders since his pounds 2m move from West Ham. Late decisions will determine whether Neil Ruddock (hamstring) and John Barnes (groin) play a part in trying to reverse last season's 1-0 scoreline.

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