Football: United's toughest test is domestic

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The Independent Online
AS Manchester United luxuriate in their European Cup semi-final win in Turin, the paradox is that it will be easier for them to be champions of Europe than champions of England. The talk may be of trebles but the troubles are likely to come on the domestic front.

One good performance against Bayern Munich on 26 May will make them rulers of the Continent but it is going to take six in the Premiership and as that includes trips to Leeds, Liverpool, Middlesbrough and Blackburn the title is by no means a foregone conclusion.

That programme is arduous but if you had to pick a fixture most likely to trip them up then tomorrow morning's at Elland Road is the one. The bile for Alex Ferguson's team in Leeds is arguably more bitter than even that at Liverpool so if Roy Keane and co thought the atmosphere in the Stadio Delle Alpi on Wednesday was intimidating it will be nothing compared to this.

It would be a difficult fixture if Leeds were playing badly but they accumulated seven successive wins before being held to draws in their last two matches, and you have to go back to 6 February since their last League defeat. Only United and Arsenal have better records.

"Manchester United are a fantastic side," Jonathon Woodgate, the Leeds centre-back who was called into his first England squad this week, said. "They're not liked because they win a lot of things but hopefully we'll be like that in a couple of years. I love playing against the best players because you find out how good you are. I can't wait for the game to tell you the truth."

The home team will be motivated but if Ferguson needs to gee up his players then he need only remind them of their reception at Manchester Airport in September when, by unhappy coincidence, the United party flying to Munich bumped into Leeds fans going to Madeira. "You'd have thought we'd murdered their families," Gary Neville commented afterwards.

By tomorrow United may be off the top of the table although, if they are, Arsenal will have become only the second side this season to succeed at the Riverside. History would suggest a draw because the Gunners have not won at Middlesbrough in their last four League visits while Boro have drawn more games than they have won at home.

Arsenal are also likely to be without their top scorer Dennis Bergkamp, who has an abdominal strain and has not trained since the FA Cup semi- final defeat by United 10 days ago.

"Without Dennis it's more difficult to score goals but at the moment all the other strikers are fit," the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, said before paying tribute to Bergkamp's likely replacement, Nwankwo Kanu. "Since he has arrived he has improved a lot. What I like in his game is that he makes complicated situations look simple and he brings other players into the game."

Chelsea will be hoping both Leeds and Middlesbrough prevail because a season of much promise is suddenly looking barren and they require help from others if they can win the one remaining trophy in their sights, the championship. Still they are likely to find Sheffield Wednesday accommodating tomorrow afternoon if the limp performance they put up at Old Trafford last week is a guide.

While the true situation at top of the table will not become apparent until Chelsea finish that game, the clouded picture at the bottom of the Premiership should be clearer by 5pm today. Nottingham Forest will be relegated unless they defeat Aston Villa at Villa Park while Everton should have put their relegation worries away for at least four months if they defeat Charlton at Goodison and record three successive League wins for the first time since October 1996.

With Southampton taking their lamentable away record to Derby, the time is ripe for Blackburn to earn themselves breathing space, particularly as they are meeting the team who are giving Forest the best run for their money in terms of bad current form, Liverpool.

On the same night that their great rivals were reaching their second European Cup final, Liverpool, four times champions of Europe, fell to their seventh defeat in their last 12 Premiership games and are hurtling towards two unwanted landmarks. Currently 10th, they are in danger of their lowest top-flight finish since they were relegated in 1953-54 and their tally of just 12 victories this season threatens to be their worst in any division since 1954. They need four wins from their last five games to avoid that.

"The fact we have two strikers on the sidelines means it's difficult for us," their manager, Gerard Houllier, said of the suspended Robbie Fowler and injured Michael Owen. "We're very handicapped on the offensive front and we have to overcome that. Sometimes you need some more experience and say `OK, we can't score but let's get the point'."

A Kop close revolt will not be appeased by such negativity. The sooner the season ends, the better for Liverpool.