Football: Upstarts tackle Stock Market set

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The Independent Online
AT THE end of a week which may have heralded the end of football as we know it, the Premiership schedule is full of those splendid quirks of the fixture computer that no Murdoch minion spouting about "product" and "markets" or their aspirations for "Manchester" could begin to appreciate.

Three of the clubs linked with communications conglomerates are confronted by upstarts who, in the new-fangled world of corporate takeovers, epitomise the old-fashioned values of team spirit and hard graft. Manchester United, to use one of the names by which those whose "love" of the game dates back longer than the past week, receive Coventry, while Aston Villa and Arsenal tackle Wimbledon and Leicester respectively.

How sweet the irony if Wimbledon, the homeless, hard-up antithesis of the Stock Exchange set, were to lead the table tonight. Yet it could happen. If Joe Kinnear's side repeat last season's success at Villa - by no means beyond them after the way they came from 3-0 down to beat West Ham - and Liverpool and Leeds lose awkward away matches, the perennial relegation favourites' stock will be higher than ever. Ripe, indeed, for a buy-out by East Cheam TV Repairs & Rentals.

With only six hours of football played, it is too soon to talk of championship challenges and pushing for Europe. Another big Villa Park crowd can nevertheless be forgiven a buzz of anticipation as they assemble for the debut of Paul Merson, the pounds 6.75m catalyst already dubbed "My Cantona" by the Villa manager, John Gregory.

Three weeks ago, when Dwight Yorke decamped to Old Trafford and Merson lined up against them for Middlesbrough, Villa's prospects seemed scarcely brighter than when they lost the first four games a year earlier. That was the worst start in their history. Three wins and a draw, taking Gregory's record to a staggering 37 points out of 45, is one of their best.

Despite reports bracketing them with United and Arsenal as takeover targets, Villa are more like Wimbledon on the pitch. There are few obvious stars but a strong sense of camaraderie. The impromptu huddle after this week's victory over Newcastle exemplified as much, Gregory poking his head in to tell his players he loved them and that they could win the title. What is more, of the 14 on duty, Mark Bosnich was the only non-Englishman.

Merson, at a mere 30, will be their oldest player. By coincidence, he made his Arsenal bow against today's opponents 13 years ago, scoring in a 2-1 win. This fixture has delivered 7-1 and 5-0 home routs in recent seasons, though anyone tempted to gamble the mortgage on Villa (if Mr Merson will pardon the reference) should be aware that defeats by the Dons did for both Brian Little and Ron Atkinson.

Liverpool, leading Villa on goal difference, represent a vastly different challenge to a West Ham defence found wanting by Wimbledon's aerial barrage. The danger will come from pace - Michael Owen is likely to be partnered at some stage by Robbie Fowler after the latter's six-goal comeback in the reserves - and from the precision of the service to the front.

Jamie Redknapp, son of the Hammers' manager, Harry, and Paul Ince, whose parentage is more dubious in the eyes of an unforgiving Upton Park, have not been on the losing side in 20 League matches together for Liverpool. But just as Neil Ruddock may labour against Owen and Fowler, so Ian Wright and John Hartson could subject the makeshift duo of Jamie Carragher and Phil Babb to its sternest test.

Liverpool's midweek victims, Coventry, undermined Manchester United's title charge last Christmas when the bookies had all but stopped taking bets on them. That, however, was at Highfield Road; today's meeting is at Sold Trafford, as one commentator has christened it, where the Sky Blues (a nickname to alert the new owner's copyright lawyers) have won once in 13 visits and scored one in the last nine.

Leicester have not managed a goal in eight minutes under four hours; Arsenal's barren run extends for nearly 50 minutes longer. Which probably means that Filbert Street can expect a glut along the lines of last season's 3-3 draw, which featured a Dennis Bergkamp hat-trick for the champions- to-be, if not a repeat of the clubs' 6-6 "stalemate" in 1930.

Leeds' match at Everton is one where where the portents promise less for the visitors than current form. The Yorkshire club's most recent victory at Goodison Park was in their first game after promotion in 1990, and they have found the net just once on the last six occasions.

Seven and a half years have passed since Paul Gascoigne played a competitive match at White Hart Lane. It is typical of these times that his return, with Middlesbrough, tomorrow, has been overtaken as a talking point among Spurs fans by the possibility of Alan Sugar selling out to a yet another media consortium.