Football: Villa air gate expectations: Phil Shaw looks at the weekend's football programme

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The Independent Online
ASTON VILLA'S disappointing attendances are, like Leeds' away form or Derby's home record, one of the mysteries of the season. While their main rivals for the inaugural Premier League title, Manchester United, will again lock the doors before today's game against Middlesbrough, the leaders have felt obliged to slash prices for the visit for Wimbledon.

A week ago, after drawing only 20,000 to three recent fixtures, Villa took the unusual step of advertising their match with Everton and were rewarded by a turn-out of 32,900. Wimbledon, who put them out of the FA Cup last month after a bore draw at Villa Park, obviously call for a more drastic marketing strategy.

This time Villa have virtually halved the cost of admission to the 19,000-capacity Holte End terrace. Yet Villa are playing attractively, as all Ron Atkinson's sides do, and it used to be said that their supporters would come just to watch the claret and blue shirts drying on a line.

Why the apathy? A price rise of 20 per cent this season has clearly backfired on Villa. Job losses, such as those at Birmingham Council and Leyland DAF, have not helped. There again, the effects of recession have not cut the queues at Newcastle or Stoke.

Villa will again be without Dalian Atkinson, who had a stomach muscle operation yesterday and will not return until the final half-dozen matches. His ability to conjure spectacular goals out of nothing is mirrored by Ryan Giggs at Old Trafford. As Alex Ferguson remarked last week, all the contenders are bound to suffer hiccups, but the availability or otherwise of Atkinson and Giggs may ultimately be decisive.

Wimbledon are edging towards safety once more, and could run Villa close. In contrast, Middlesbrough seem unable to break their fall. They are sure to shadow Giggs rigorously after his virtuoso intervention against Southampton, putting the onus on Mark Hughes to emerge from goalscoring hibernation.

It would be folly, remembering how Sheffield Wednesday came up on the rails last year, to disregard Norwich and Blackburn, who meet tomorrow. Norwich's progress has been a staccato affair, but they are currently in a winning burst and have the incentive of avenging their 7-1 humiliation at Ewood Park.

Bafflingly, Wednesday's crowds are also down by 3,000 a game on last season, though they should easily top the 26,000 average against Liverpool. Another goal for Paul Warhurst would take the converted defender to within one match of Derek Dooley's club record of scoring in nine consecutive games. More importantly, a Wednesday victory would maintain their challenge on three fronts and plunge Liverpool into deeper trouble.

A minute's silence in honour of Bobby Moore will be observed at grounds everywhere. At Hillsborough, which will always hold sad memories for Liverpool followers, and Roker Park, where Moore's beloved West Ham face Sunderland in the First Division, it is certain to be especially poignant.

The roar of anticipation following that reflection will be conspicuously boisterous at two Second Division venues, with the section's top four locked in combat. In Moore's old east London domain, champions-elect Stoke face third-placed Leyton Orient, one of many teams undone by the durability of Lou Macari's men this season. When they met in October, Orient led 1-0 with three minutes left and still lost.

The same afternoon, Stoke's neighbours, Port Vale, won at the then-leaders West Bromwich Albion to begin their rise to second place. While the respective managers, John Rudge and Ossie Ardiles, pride themselves on purist principles, the fur may fly before an expected 14,000 crowd, particularly with both clubs beaten heavily last week.