Football: Wilkinson to reflect on tough times for chasing pack: Leeds look to make inroads into Manchester United's lead

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The Independent Online
SOMETIME tomorrow Howard Wilkinson will sit down for a deserved glass of the relaxing stuff and reflect that Christmas and new year can be very tough at the top. A formidable festive challenge that began for Leeds United at Newcastle, included a stop at Old Trafford and a home game with Queen's Park Rangers, winds up today when they receive Aston Villa's happy band of travellers at Elland Road.

More credit then to Wilkinson's side that they should come through the holiday programme unscathed - so far. The down side is that after three successive draws, there are fewer games available to retrieve Manchester United's lead and no longer are they the best-placed team to take advantage should the unthinkable happen. That status now belongs to Blackburn, who on Saturday exploited Villa's Jekyll and Hyde tendencies to maintain their winning form, which now extends to five victories in six games. Only Paul Ince's last-minute equaliser at Old Trafford spoiled a spotless sequence and it is the rampant Rovers who more and more look the likeliest to shepherd the chasing pack over the finishing line.

Blackburn have skill and strength in all departments but more importantly they have Shearer and a reliability in front of goal that only Arsenal and Newcastle can identify with. After a second successive home defeat, Wimbledon are unlikely to to be burdened with overconfidence at Ewood Park today, especially as John Fashanu and Dean Holdsworth are injury doubts and John Scales is a definite non-starter.

Villa are better away from their own patch as the weekend confirmed. Having upset Norwich's own plans to recover ground lost at home they failed to capitalise on it but a few more chastising words from Ron Atkinson should ensure a contest to savour for Sky's cameras at Elland Road tonight.

Everton, deep in their despair, with not so much as a single goal to elevate Jimmy Gabriel's last remaining days as caretaker manager, need only look as far as today's opponents, Chelsea, for inspiration. A week ago Chelsea were consumed by similar dark thoughts as the number of clubs beneath them whittled away. Hey presto] Two successive victories lift spirits and horizons and suddenly Mark Stein, with three goals in three games, resembles a pounds 1.5m striker.

So vulnerable are the Merseysiders now that their outgoing board has agreed that a new manager must be their priority ahead of the decision to choose between the rival claims of would-be buyers, Bill Kenwright and Peter Johnson. After prolonged discussions on Saturday the board issued a statement claiming that 'the appointment cannot wait while the deliberations over the owners of the club are resolved and they intend taking immediate steps to make a new appointment with all possible haste'.

If Saturday proved a happy hunting time for visiting teams, with eight victories in 11 attempts, today should restore the balance in favour of the hosts. QPR would not have wished for a visit to Highbury at this time as Arsenal look to build on their 10-goal holiday haul. Boring? Make that scoring, scoring Arsenal.

Reports, results and

tables, pages 26 and 27

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