Football: United to pound out title message

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The Independent Online
AFTER A MOMENT of genius which reminded all but the most blinkered Manchester United-haters of what drew them to football in the first place, the Premiership reconvenes today with both the title race and the relegation issue so finely balanced that a winner entering the net via a backside or a big toe will be received as if it were Ryan Giggs' glorious goal recreated.

Points, rather than performances, are all that matter now. The top three's next fixtures are all at home to sides roughly one win from safety, with Chelsea and Arsenal, who do not receive Leicester and Wimbledon until tomorrow and Monday respectively, doubtless hoping the exertions of Wednesday's FA Cup semi-final replay take their toll on Manchester United against Sheffield Wednesday.

Ironically, the victors may have paid a heavier price than the vanquished, and not simply in terms of tired limbs. The dismissal of Roy Keane against Arsenal will cost United their captain's services later in the run-in. More pressingly, the injuries sustained by Giggs and Peter Schmeichel will almost certainly force them out against Wednesday, if not on Wednesday, when they play the second leg of their European Cup semi-final away to Juventus.

With the Stadio delle Alpi in mind, Alex Ferguson may be tempted to seek the same balance between first choices and fringe players that served him so well at Villa Park. Several of his B list, notably Teddy Sheringham, played outstandingly, and there is a strong possibility that the former York City striker Jonathan Greening will face Wednesday.

Ferguson's deputy, Steve McClaren, alluded yesterday to the psychological warfare which is a characteristic of all United's campaigns. "We need to send out a message to the rest of the Premier League that, even after the hectic week we've had, we can bounce back and get three points," he said.

Wednesday's last visit ended in the 6-1 defeat which cost David Pleat his job as manager. But their away form under Danny Wilson (a 7-0 loser with Barnsley at United a week before Pleat's grim finale) is respectable enough to concern Ferguson, who will be wary of a player who began with Turin's other club, Benito Carbone.

Criticism of Chelsea for "failing" to take over at the top in midweek betrayed a patronising attitude towards Middlesbrough. But as surely as Gianluca Vialli will appear for his post-match interviews in the obligatory pullover, Chelsea remain well placed to win their first title since 1955, especially with United's resources being strained by their own success.

Leicester, who have taken more points on their travels than any club in the lower half of the table, should provide obdurate opposition. It took a freakish strike by Franck Leboeuf to beat them last time they were at Stamford Bridge, and a preposterous penalty award by Mike Reed to finish them in an FA Cup replay the previous season. They will also have a Chelsea "reject", Frank Sinclair, bursting to thwart his old club after being unexpectedly cleared to play by the FA's disciplinary committee.

Leeds, whose prospects of reaching the Champions' League receded with Monday's draw against Liverpool, have the chance to renew the pressure on Chelsea and Arsenal by winning at Charlton today. Alan Curbishley, the home manager, almost erred on the side of talking up Leeds unduly yesterday, hailing their "pace, power, talent and experience" as well as the growing maturity of the Valley old boy Lee Bowyer.

But Charlton's need for points is, if anything, more urgent, Leeds being virtually assured of at least fourth place. Moreover, they have generally acquitted themselves well against teams from the upper reaches. Bowyer, whose reception may buck the trend for booing returning favourites, believes they will stay up.

The collision of Southampton, in 19th place, and Blackburn, in 18th, is practically a nine-pointer. After failing to win at home for the first time this year against Arsenal, Southampton continued their wretched away run with a further two defeats, all of which would make a Blackburn victory unthinkable. What better time, then, for Mark Hughes to break his scoring duck in his unlikely incarnation as a Saint than against a team managed by the Brians, Kidd and McClair?

Among the clubs wishing that both teams could lose at The Dell, Coventry take on Middlesbrough needing to shake off the languor of Sunday's defeat at Goodison Park, while the more fatalistic Evertonians are probably expecting their former idol, Duncan Ferguson, to come off the Newcastle bench and push them closer to the drop.

Meanwhile, Nottingham Forest's demotion could well be confirmed even if they record an unlikely win over Tottenham. At the City Ground, as at Anfield, the minute's silence for the 96 who died after going to watch Forest play Liverpool at Hillsborough on the equivalent Saturday 10 years ago should be a poignant reminder of the difference between disappointment and disaster.