Football: Villa aim to take revenge

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ON WHAT is arguably the most "English" day in the football calendar, when huge crowds revel in the holly and the rivalry in a manner alien to continental Europe, the most English of championship challengers have a score to settle.

The score in question is the 5-0 drubbing which Aston Villa, the home- grown Premiership leaders, suffered at Blackburn in their first away fixture of 1998. Their last, which takes them back to Ewood Park as the campaign reaches the half-way point, is one of those end-of-year occasions for reflecting upon how rapidly things can change.

At the time of the January meeting, a Blackburn side under Roy Hodgson's managership held second place as opposed to today's 18th. Villa's embarrassment, exacerbated by a spitting incident involving Savo Milosevic, saw them slip to 12th position and led Brian Little to offer the resignation that was accepted a month later.

Now in the respective charge of Brian Kidd and John Gregory, the clubs reconvene with vastly different agendas. When Villa trailed Arsenal 2- 0, they resembled the pacesetting distance runner who is burned off long before the bell. The second wind that brought victory that day and another at Charlton have gone a long way towards convincing the sceptics that they have the capacity to stay the distance.

Blackburn are unbeaten in three games since Kidd's appointment yet remain in a group of five who are in danger of being cut adrift at the bottom. The appearance of Dion Dublin, who spurned Rovers in favour of Villa, is likely to generate enough hot air to supply Branson's balloon. Keith Gillespie, on whose crosses he would have thrived, makes his home debut.

The late kick-off at Ewood means that Chelsea, who occupied the summit for two days until Monday night, are likely to return there for at least three hours should they win at another of the queasy quintet, Southampton.

The Saints produced their best display of the season against Wimbledon last weekend, but the suspension of Mark Hughes deprives them of a striker who always excels against former employers. To tilt the balance further towards Chelsea, who are now unbeaten in 17 Premiership games, Marcel Desailly is in line to return, as might Graeme Le Saux.

With the top two both away, Manchester United will view the visit of the bottom club, Nottingham Forest, as a chance to regain ground lost in the home defeat by Middlesbrough. United know from bitter experience the folly of projecting ahead from the Boxing Day positions.

Exactly 12 months ago they had collected 46 of a possible 60 points after a sixth successive win. In their next game, United led Coventry with four minutes left, only for collective complacency to cost them all three points. Arsenal, it transpired, sensed that day all was not lost.

A Forest victory would provoke calls for a stewards' inquiry. Dave Bassett's side could not stop United's second string in the Worthington Cup, and only a shock to match any this season will prevent their equalling a club record of 16 League matches without a win.

Middlesbrough's success, which has put them in fourth place just 18 months after they plunged into the First Division, has been as refreshing and unexpected as Villa's ascendancy. To add the scalp of Liverpool to that of United, albeit an emasculated version compared with Anfield's finest, could tempt Teesside into declaring UDI.

However, as Villa discovered to their cost, Liverpool's form fluctuates wildly. The return of Paul Gascoigne, whose renaissance proves that abstinence makes the heart grow fonder, may not be quite what Boro need to counter Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, especially if Gary Pallister fails a fitness test.

Arsenal's followers, having greeted George Graham and David O'Leary with varying degrees of warmth lately, welcome another Highbury legend "home" when Ian Wright steps out with West Ham. This time last year the eventual Double winners stood fifth compared with sixth this morning, 13 points off the pace. Tonight they could be as few as four behind.

Another man going back is David Batty, whose recovery from cracked ribs may enable him to face Newcastle, the club he served until this month. But, with Duncan Ferguson and Alan Shearer primed to launch a potentially fearsome partnership, the visitors might have chosen to have either of the stricken centre-backs, Lucas Radebe or Robert Molenaar, fit instead.

Flying in from Norway, like some on-loan Santa, the Molde goalkeeper Morten Bakke goes straight on to Wimbledon's bench as cover for the increasingly excellent Neil Sullivan at home to free-falling Charlton, a meeting of Selhurst Park's reluctant tenants, past and present.

Coventry's recent record against Tottenham is as good as it was against Leeds during George Graham's time there. Spurs' position in the lower echelons does not reflect their resurgent form under new management, so the outcome at Highfield Road could have a significance beyond the Sky Blues' customary bid to beat the drop.