Football: Villa face first test of character

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS the vaguest hint of a smile as John Gregory reflected on Aston Villas' postponed match at Chelsea last week, his mood cheered by the prospect of a rest for his players before a midweek Uefa Cup tie. To put it mildly, things have not gone to plan since.

Manchester United and Arsenal took advantage of Villa's inactivity with away wins that moved them uncomfortably close to the early leaders while Gregory's ambitions on Europe were blown apart by Celta Vigo. Suddenly there is the slightest whiff of anxiety.

They may remain unbeaten in the Premiership but Tuesday's defeat was preceded by a 4-1 thrashing by Chelsea in the Worthington Cup. That is two competitions out of the window and if they fail to win against Tottenham Hotspur today they could find themselves trailing last season's champions and runners-up by tomorrow eve-ning. "There's a little bit of pressure on us with two consecutive defeats," Gregory said. "I've not been in this position before, so we'll have to see how we all react."

How Gregory reacted was similar to many us with problems: go on a spending spree, and within 48 hours of his team's Vigo no-show he bought Dion Dublin for pounds 5.75m from Coventry and the striker will be in the side to face Spurs at Villa Park. Who his partner will be is the manager's province but two out of Paul Merson, Stan Collymore and Julian Joachim will be disappointed.

"People ask me whether all the strikers I have now presents me with a selection problem," Gregory said. "I would say that it presents Tottenham with a problem." George Graham has faced Villa already this season with his previous club Leeds when a dull game ended scoreless. "They play it tight," the Tottenham manager said, "so it will be difficult. After their European defeat they will be looking to bounce back."

Manchester United and Arsenal had contrasting fortunes in Europe and both play tomorrow which means Liverpool can creep up behind them, albeit for 24 hours, if they beat Derby. But Middlesbrough will be third this evening if they can secure a four-goal victory at Southampton.

Boro have been the surprise team of the season to date and their progress is the more remarkable because Gary Pallister has barely kicked a ball for them, Paul Merson has gone and Paul Gascoigne, well, has been Paul Gascoigne. Gazza will continue his comeback at The Dell where Southampton's captain, Jason Dodd, will attempt a less-publicised recuperation after missing the last six weeks.

Middlesbrough have been the best of the promoted clubs, but Charlton are pushing them close and could pass some illustrious names today if they defeat Leicester, although that is not a foregone conclusion. Martin O'Neill's team are unbeaten in seven matches and if they had not conceded late goals against Manchester United and Arsenal they would be in third place. They also boast a centre-back who is playing as well as anyone in his position in Matt Elliott.

If that is a match of the over-achievers, you need look no further than Ewood Park for a confrontation between two clubs who have underperformed seriously this season. Coventry appeared to have left their brinkmanship days behind them when 11th last season but, second from bottom, and now without Dublin they look ripe relegation material. Much will depend on how Noel Whelan and Darren Huckerby compensate for Dublin's departure although the three goals they have managed between them so far this season is not promising. Neither is the injury situation because David Burrows is doubtful after straining his hamstring and Marcus Hall has damaged knee ligaments and will be out four months.

Not that they will get much sympathy at Blackburn who have been an injury waiting to happen all season. Billy McKinlay is the latest occupying the time of the overworked medical staff which means Italian midfielder Dario Marcolin, signed on loan from Lazio for the rest of the season, could make his debut. New pounds 4.25m striker Nath-an Blake will hope the manager, Roy Hodgson, will prefer him to Kevin Davies to make his first start for his new club.

Pierre van Hooijdonk may return in Nottingham Forest's match with Wimbledon at the City Ground. His comeback for the reserves was thwarted by the weather but, despite lack of match practice, his manager, Dave Bassett, indicated yesterday that he might still pick him.

Football, pages 28-31