Football: Weekend guide to the Premiership

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MATCH OF THE WEEKEND (TOMORROW, 4PM)

Middlesbrough v Manchester United

THOSE CONSPIRACY theorists who have suggested that old loyalties will gift an easy victory to Manchester United at the Riverside Stadium tomorrow had better have a rethink. There was no sign of favouritism from Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson (left) and his assistant Viv Anderson, or central defender Gary Pallister, all three former United favourites, when Boro beat the Reds 3-2 at Old Trafford on 19 December - the last time United lost a match.

"The fact that I had a long career at United doesn't come into it," Robson said. "We want the points and a win for our fans. I know Alex Ferguson [right] would not do us any favours and he won't expect any either."

There was also little indication of Robson offering a helping hand to his old mentor when Boro capitulated 6-1 to United's title rivals Arsenal just over two weeks ago, also at the Riverside. If you include Paul Ince's late equaliser for Liverpool on Wednesday night and the forthcoming midweek visit to Bryan Kidd's relegation-threatened Blackburn Rovers, who are sure to put up a furious struggle, then Ferguson may well rue bumping into so many old acquaintances at this stage of the season.

United - now three points behind the defending champions from Highbury - must make this, their game in hand, count to keep the pressure on Arsenal, who face a difficult trip to Elland Road on Tuesday night to face an old boy test of their own in the shape of Leeds manager David O'Leary.

At least the possible return of Ryan Giggs, injured since his glorious FA Cup semi-final replay winner against the Gunners, will bolster Ferguson's plans - if not at the Riverside then perhaps at Ewood Park on Wednesday night. Should the Welsh winger fail a late fitness test then Jesper Blomqvist will continue on the left. Giggs aside, Ferguson appears content with the same personnel from Anfield, although probably happier that Graham Barber will be in charge of the refereeing decisions rather than David Elleray.

One thing that Robson has no control over is Middlesbrough's lengthy injury list, with Paul Gascoigne, Keith O'Neill, Colin Cooper, Gianluca Festa and Phil Stamp all still long-term victims and absent from the squad. Colombian striker Hamilton Ricard, however, has recovered from his neck injury - sustained during last week's 1-1 draw to Newcastle at St James' Park - to again add his muscle and hustle in tandem with Brian Deane's muscle and bustle.

MIDDLESBROUGH (from): Schwarzer, Beresford, Stockdale, Baker, Pallister, Gavin, Vickers, Gordon, Maddison, Summerbell, Mustoe, Townsend, Campbell, Deane, Ricard, Armstrong, Kinder, Cummins.

MANCHESTER UNITED (from): Schmeichel, G Neville, Stam, Johnsen, Irwin, Beckham, Keane, Butt, Scholes, Blomqvist, Cole, Yorke, May, Sheringham, P Neville, Giggs, Brown, Greening, Wilson, Van der Gouw.

Suspensions: None.

Referee: G Barber.

Aston Villa v Charlton Athletic

Last season: No fixture

ASTON VILLA striker Dion Dublin is determined to play through the pain barrier for the visit of relegation-threatened Charlton Athletic to Villa Park, despite the England international suffering with a hernia problem and a knee injury. Goalkeeper Mark Bosnich faces being left out in the cold again as his Villa career faces an embarrassing finale. The Australian international was dropped from the squad that travelled to Manchester United last weekend because of his failure to sign a new contract, although he did have a foot injury. Even though manager John Gregory has insisted Bosnich remains in his plans, Michael Oakes is set to continue in goal.

Charlton will also be without a goalkeeper, with Simon Royce out of the club's battle for Premiership survival after an operation on his knee. Another player missing after going under the surgeon's knife is hernia victim Paul Mortimer. There is good news for manager Alan Curbishley in the shape of a possible return for striker Clive Mendonca, who scored in Wednesday's reserve victory over Wycombe.

ASTON VILLA (from): Oakes or Bosnich, Watson, Calderwood, Southgate, Wright, Stone, Taylor, Draper, Merson, Dublin, Joachim, Barry, Thompson, Vassell, Ehiogu, Enckelman.

CHARLTON ATHLETIC (from): Barnes, Barness, Beale, Bright, Brown, Fortune, Holmes, Hunt, Jones K, Jones S, Kinsella, Konchosky, Lisbie, Mendonca, Mills, Newton, Parker, Poole, Cowell, Pringle, Redfearn, Robinson, Rufus, Tiler, Toms, Youds.

Suspensions: None.

Referee: M Riley.

Blackburn v Nottm Forest

Last season: No fixture

BLACKBURN'S MATT JANSEN is on course for a quick return for Rovers as his side look to pick up the much needed points that could help them avoid the drop. The former Crystal Palace striker, who only underwent knee surgery last month, is almost certain to be involved at some stage at Ewood Park against the already relegated Nottingham Forest. Manager Brian Kidd still has injury worries with late checks on captain Jason Wilcox and top scorer Ashley Ward.

Bernard Allou is likely to make his full debut for Ron Atkinson's First Division returnees. The former French Under-21 international, a free transfer signing from Japanese side Grampus Eight, is in contention after scoring his first goal for the club in a reserve game on Wednesday. Pierre van Hooijdonk is in line for a return after being relegated to the bench for the past two matches. He could take Dougie Freedman's place in the front line. Forest have not won in their last five visits to Rovers and have yet to beat them in any of their nine Premiership fixtures, home and away, since the League began.

BLACKBURN ROVERS (from): Filan, Croft, Henchoz, Peacock, Davidson, Gillespie, Johnson, McAteer, Carsley, Wilcox, Duff, Ward, Gallacher, Davies, Broomes, Taylor, Flowers.

NOTTINGHAM FOREST (from): Crossley, Louis-Jean, Rogers, Chettle, Gough, Allou, Porfirio, Palmer, Bonalair, Freedman, Bart-Williams, Van Hooijdonk, Harewood, Shipperley, Lyttle, Mattsson, Woan, Beasant.

Suspensions: None.

Referee: N Barry.

Derby County v Coventry

Last season: 3-1

PAULO WANCHOPE will again play in a withdrawn role as Derby County bring down the curtain on their Pride Park appearances for this Premiership campaign. Manager Jim Smith has decided to keep the Costa Rican striker in the creative role behind the front two for the visit of Coventry City, after Wanchope was so successful in that position during the 2-1 win at Leicester on Wednesday night. Dean Sturridge and Mikkel Beck benefited with a goal apiece midweek and should continue up front. Midfielder Lars Bohinen is out with a calf injury, although Darryl Powell should be fit to take over.

Coventry manager Gordon Strachan has told his striker Darren Huckerby to improve his goal tally rather than concentrating on scoring occasional spectacular goals. Huckerby scored against Wimbledon last weekend, but it was his first goal in 15 matches and he missed out on a call-up to Kevin Keegan's England squad for the friendly with Hungary last month. Left-back David Burrows is battling to recover from a thigh muscle strain picked up in the first half against Wimbledon.

DERBY COUNTY (from): Poom, Prior, Carbonari, Laursen, Delap, Powell, Eranio, Schnoor, Wanchope, Sturridge, Beck, Baiano, Hoult, Harper, Murray, Jackson, Robinson.

COVENTRY CITY (from): Hedman, Edworthy, Shaw, Breen, Hall, Burrows, Telfer, McAllister, Boateng, Whelan, Huckerby, Aloisi, Williams, Nilsson, Clement, Gioacchini, Kirkland.

Suspensions: None.

Referee: P Alcock.

Everton v West Ham

Last season: 2-1

OLIVIER DACOURT returns for what could be his final Goodison appearance for Everton in their last home game of the season. The Frenchman, who has twice criticised the club in recent weeks and looks likely to be sold shortly, is back after missing last week's trip to Chelsea with an ankle problem. Scot Gemmill also returns after suspension, while Dave Watson should be available again following a leg problem. Everton may still need a point to avoid the drop but the only way they can now go down is if Blackburn take at least seven points from their final three games (including next Wednesday's home match with Manchester United) and they themselves lose to West Ham today and then to Southampton on the last day of the season.

England defender Rio Ferdinand is fit to return for West Ham after recovering from an ankle injury. Midfielder John Moncur is suspended while Ian Pearce, Steve Potts, Julian Dicks and Paul Kitson remain on the Hammers' injured list and Stan Lazaridis is out of contention because of illness. West Ham's only win in the sides' last 11 meetings came in January 1994.

EVERTON (from): Myhre, Weir, Dunne, Watson, Short, Unsworth, Ball, Gemmill, Hutchison, Dacourt, Barmby, Ward, Jeffers, Campbell, Cadamarteri, Degn, Simonsen, Phelan, Bakayoko.

WEST HAM (from): Hislop, Ferdinand, Ruddock, Sinclair, Minto, Berkovic, Lampard, Lomas, Foe, Di Canio, Wright, Forrest, Keller, Cole, Bullard, Mean, Coyne, Holligan, Abou.

Suspension: West Ham: Moncur.

Referee: A Wilkie.

Leicester v Newcastle

Last season: 0-0

THE LEICESTER CITY defender Steve Walsh is likely to start against Newcastle after coming off the bench in the Foxes' 2-1 midweek defeat to Derby. Walsh played the last 30 minutes against the Rams and showed no reaction to the ankle injury that kept him out of the previous six games. Manager Martin O'Neill will be without youngster Stuart Wilson (hamstring) and Rob Ullathorne, who has a broken leg, is out for the season.

Newcastle's defender Andy Griffin will not be rushed back from injury today. The 20-year-old, who escaped unhurt after driving his car into a train on Monday night, is still recovering from a twisted ankle picked up on international duty with England Under-21s, while Frenchman Laurent Charvet is still out with a knee problem. Newcastle's goalkeeper Steve Harper said yesterday: "A lot of people are saying that we're going through the motions at the moment, but the lads aren't going into the games with that attitude. They're trying to win every game, as you should do." Who on earth would suggest that Ruud Gullit's side are saving themselves for the FA Cup final?

LEICESTER CITY (from): Keller, Arphexad, Sinclair, Walsh, Izzet, Lennon, Heskey, Parker, Guppy, Gunnlaugsson, Savage, Kaamark, Campbell, Miller, Elliott, Marshall, Fenton, Impey, Cottee, Oakes, Zagorakis.

NEWCASTLE UNITED (from): Harper, Given, Barton, Domi, Dabizas, Beharall, Hughes, Speed, Hamann, Lee, Maric, Ketsbaia, Solano, Shearer, Ferguson, Andersson, McClen.

Suspensions: None.

Referee: U Rennie.

Sheff Wed v Liverpool

Last season: 3-3

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY'S England international left-back Andy Hinchcliffe is again a major doubt for his side's final home game of the season. Hinchcliffe is struggling with a knee injury which kept him out of the 2-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest last week and will undergo a late fitness test. Brazilian centre-back Emerson, meanwhile, is fit after illness which led to him been taken off during the first half at the City Ground.

Liverpool should welcome back Patrik Berger (who has had a hamstring problem) at Sheffield Wednesday after the Czech Republic international made his comeback from the substitutes' bench against Manchester United in midweek. Manager Gerard Houllier is likely to retain much the same side that came back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2, with youngsters David Thompson and Steven Gerrard in contention. Liverpool may also return to a four- man defence after reverting to five to try to contain United, which could mean Phil Babb stepping down. In the last 10 games between the sides, each has won two and six have ended in draws.

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY (from): Srnicek; Atherton, Jonk, Newsome, Carbone, Booth, Sanetti, Humphreys, Briscoe, Stefanovic, Hinchcliffe, Cresswell, Emerson, Rudi, Alexandersson, Sonner, Morrison, McKeever, Pressman.

LIVERPOOL (from): Friedel, Song, Carragher, Staunton, Babb, Matteo, Gerrard, Thompson, Redknapp, Ince, Leonhardsen, Riedle, McManaman, Berger, James, Ferri, Bjornebye, Kvarme, Dundee.

Suspensions: None.

Referee: P Jones.

Wimbledon v Southampton

Last season: 1-0

WIMBLEDON WILL be without defender Chris Perry, who has broken a bone in his foot and is unlikely to return this season. Also out of the season's final two games is Nigerian international Efan Ekoku, following a knee operation. Andy Roberts returns to the midfield after a one-match ban.

Southampton's talismanic midfielder Matt Le Tissier is still suffering from the effects of the calf strain which forced him to be substituted during the 2-1 win against Leicester last weekend but is confident of being passed fit. Midfielder Chris Marsden is also expected to be fit despite missing training at the start of the week with a groin problem. Moroccan international Hassan Kachloul will play despite still being troubled by a shoulder injury suffered two weeks ago. Manager Dave Jones must decide whether to recall goalkeeper Paul Jones in goal in place of Neil Moss after the Welsh international's rapid recovery from a back problem. Former England striker David Hirst is still struggling with a hamstring injury while winger Stuart Ripley is suspended as he serves the second game of a three-match ban.

WIMBLEDON (from): Sullivan, Jupp, Blackwell, Cunningham, Thatcher, Earle, Roberts, C Hughes, Gayle, Hartson, Cort, Castledine, Kennedy, Francis, Kimble, Heald, Goodman, Pearce.

SOUTHAMPTON (from): Moss, Dodd, Monkou, Lundekvam, Benali, Marsden, M Hughes, Kachloul, Le Tissier, Pahars, Beattie, Ostenstad, Beresford, Hiley, Colleter, Oakley, Monk, P Jones.

Suspension: Saints: Ripley.

Referee: S Dunn.

MONDAY 8PM

Tottenham v Chelsea

Last season: 1-6

BOTH SIDES have already qualified for Europe next season, Tottenham by winning the Worthington Cup and Chelsea by finishing in the top three in the Premiership. To suggest that this game was unimportant, however, could not be further from the truth. The home side's defeat in midweek at the hands of their north London rivals, Arsenal, was the second consecutive loss for George Graham's men and he will not want a third. Graham would also like to see Spurs buck the trend that has seen them fail to win at home in any of the last nine visits of today's opponents.

Chelsea, for their part, still have everything to play for in European terms. At the moment, lying third in the table, a point behind Manchester United and four behind the Gunners, they are only guaranteed a place in the qualifying stages of the Champions' League. Should they manage to move into second, their place among the Continent's elite next season will be assured. There is also still the mathematical possibility of Gianluca's side winning the title, although that would require Arsenal taking no more than one more point (from two games) and United no more than four (from three).

Squads: To be announced.

Referee: D Elleray.

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