Football: United wary of Big Ron Effect

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The Independent Online
YOU DO not need to be a Liverpool supporter to feel the weight of late goals. Chelsea, Aston Villa and Arsenal have also spent the week ruing Dwight Yorke's winner at Charlton last Sunday that marked a wind change in the Premiership.

That goal pushed Manchester United to the top for the first time this season apart from the stagger in matches which gave them an advantage for a day. A further victory over Derby in midweek pushed them four points clear and rivals who have spent weeks looking over their shoulders for the anticipated charge from Old Trafford have had to alter their line of vision 180 degrees.

Today United, who are bidding for their fifth title in seven years, travel to Nottingham Forest for a fixture between top and bottom that would have looked a foregone conclusion a matter of weeks ago.

Since the arrival of Ron Atkinson at the City Ground there has been a perceptible lightening of mood, however, and as a former United manager he likes nothing better than putting one over his former employers. As he did last season, when his Sheffield Wednesday side halted what had, until then, seemed to be an unstoppable title bandwagon.

The Big Ron Effect secured only Forest's second win of the season at Everton last Saturday and despite the recent yo-yo record at the City Ground, United have failed to win there in their last four visits.

"There's definitely a positive attitude to a very difficult fixture," Dave Beasant, Forest's goalkeeper, said. "It was a lively dressing-room after we beat Everton. You can get used to that losing feeling and I think a few players were thinking on Sunday `This is much better than I've been feeling for the past few months. Let's keep it that way'."

Alex Ferguson, named manager of the month yesterday at the same time Yorke was picked as player for January, is wary. "You don't get easy games anywhere, and we are expecting a tough match. They have a new manager and he will have everybody thinking they can win the World Cup. You know what Ron's like."

Today is unusual if not unique in that the Premiership's top four all play on a Saturday and Chelsea and Villa will be anxious to recover their winning touch after losing last weekend.

Chelsea, whose defeat at Arsenal last Saturday marked the end of a 22- match unbeaten League run, meet a Southampton team whose status as sacrificial lambs had a rapid rewrite when they defeated Leeds comprehensively at The Dell.

Villa, meanwhile, have acquired a ragged edge of late, losing to Second Division Fulham in the FA Cup and to Newcastle last week. Much more of this and John Gregory's image, so pristine it could advertise washing powder, will acquire its first grubby edge. Their opponents are Blackburn, who scored nine goals without reply in the two fixtures between the clubs last season.

With due respect to all the above, the man on whom most attention will focus, however, is Paolo Di Canio. The irascible Italian makes his home debut for West Ham today and with glorious timing the opponents are fourth- placed Arsenal, the very team who pushed him over the limit when he laid hands on referee Paul Alcock in September.

Di Canio has promised not to go volcanic this time, although there was more than one meaning to his attempt to play the meeting down. "I made my mistake against Arsenal," he said, "but it could have been against any other team." Anyone who has managed him will vouch for that.

Harry Redknapp is the new man with the privilege and he believes that only a lack of match fitness will prevent Di Canio proving his doubters wrong. "People who know the game don't think he's a bad signing," the West Ham manager said. "Andy Gray, Kevin Keegan and Ron Atkinson have all said he's a good signing, so who is it who thinks he isn't? The Press? Well there's no problem is there? I know he's a great player."

Alcock, incidentally, makes his return to the Premiership for the first time since the Di Canio shove and, of course, he has got a low-key match with little at stake to ease him in: Forest versus United.

Middlesbrough have no problems pinpointing their high tide mark, a 3- 2 win at Old Trafford on 19 December, since when the sea has disappeared over the horizon and they have collected just two points from their last 15. Which is not the best portent to carry to Liverpool, whose last game at Anfield was the 7-1 slaughter of Southampton.

Everton will hope their time has come tomorrow away to Derby because they risk being sucked into the relegation positions if it has not. It is now 5hr 29min since they scored a goal.