Football: Winners to take all in the mind game

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The Independent Online
TODAY brings the match of the season so far. Will the winners take all? Manchester United and Aston Villa go into their summit meeting at Old Trafford knowing that to be beaten would swing the popular vote strongly in favour of the other, but there is good reason to doubt that a victory for either side would have any dramatic bearing on the destiny of the first Premier League title.

This is a season in which leaders and pursuers run at a similar pace; in which stragglers frequently inflict embarrassment on the ambitious and anyone can concede a lot of goals against anyone else. United and Villa must confess that they are no strangers to defeats and draws when in previous seasons the champions elect were more parsimonious. So if the trend continues, eventually points dropped rather than won will decide the title. United could win today and lose the Manchester derby next Saturday. Equally Villa could win today and lose to Sheffield Wednesday, who are themselves not out of the running.

That being said, naturally the game this afternoon is one of those clashes in which if there is a winner the psychological advantage moves in their favour, but it would be foolish to be dogmatic. There is a popular premonition that over the remaining 10 matches United will again blow their chances, leaving Villa and Norwich City to fight out the last few days. There is more substance to United's challenge this season, yet there is no escaping the feeling that they will falter when the need is greatest.

But will it be Villa who benefit? They have an equally tough run-in and Norwich are again on the shoulders of both. The fascination of the last act is that all three clubs have programmes that include not only matches against each other but games against clubs who are not going to turn on their backs.

Over the past week the evidence for favouring Villa to win today and take the title has been slightly enhanced. United lost away to the bottom club, Oldham, while Villa played well and were unfortunate to concede a home draw against Tottenham Hotspur. Both results confirmed that neither will finish the season without scars suffered in matches potential champions should overcome unscathed: a season for under-achievers?

With three-quarters of the term gone, Villa and United have already lost as many or more matches than were conceded by the champions of the previous five seasons. And unlike Leeds and Arsenal in the past two seasons, neither has made an almost impregnable fortress out of home territory. In other words, they are not feared by the rest of the division in the way that Liverpool were over so many seasons.

More than anything we want to know whether United can control their nerves and keep scoring goals. In spite of some impressive performances over the last few months, their faltering at the end of last season remains a nagging memory and, despite their own lack of goals over that same period last year, Villa hope the pressure will tell.

This season's records also encourage Villa: when they last met United in the League at Villa Park in November they won 1-0, as they did in the Coca-Cola Cup a week previously, but on both occasions the Dalian Atkinson-Dean Saunders partnership was intact and in full flight. Today Villa will again be without Atkinson, though they have overcome his absence considerably better than, say, Blackburn have coped with the loss of Alan Shearer.

After United beat Liverpool at Anfield last Saturday, Alex Ferguson was confident enough to say, 'There is a mood about us now; we are feeling powerful.' He seemed to have a point that day, only to lose three at Oldham so soon afterwards. Such is the unpredictability of his team and the season as a whole.

So where if anywhere will today's match be won and lost? With Tony Daley now available to the Villa side, the match could offer the prospect of wingmanship of a high order. But Daley is not yet flying and will probably stay on the bench early on while Bryan Small attacks from the back.

Villa know they have to control the one who is flying: Ryan Giggs. Ron Atkinson says: 'We've kept him quiet before and we're going to have to do that this time.' Easier said than done these days.

Some of United's best performances this season have come in games of breathless pace, but they and Villa come as near as anyone in this skill-deprived Premier League to playing attractive football. Of the two, when under pressure Villa retain their passing game more comfortably than United.

Atkinson is much the more happy-go-lucky of the managers, but his career has never quite been fulfilled, especially in his time at Old Trafford, and the glossy facade conceals some frustration as well as serious determination. The way he has changed the style and attitude of Villa since the wasted days under Dr Jozef Venglos is typical of the man and good for football.

Despite Atkinson's flamboyance, Villa have several unostentatious gems, not least Earl Barrett, Garry Parker and Kevin Richardson. Everyone knows that Paul McGrath is the best central defender in the Premier League and no doubt he will do his usual good job on Mark Hughes and the potential match-winner Eric Cantona, but more depends on who controls the game behind the attack.

Paul Ince is having his best season. At last he seems fully committed and a good deal more sensible than in previous seasons, yet this has also been a season of revelations concerning Brian McClair. Always said to be a 'players' player', that seemed faint praise and it was generally assumed that Cantona's arrival would mark his demise. In the event he has become even more important as a provider rather than partner to Hughes and has helped overcome the decline and absences of Bryan Robson.

This season Villa's progress has been marked by their ability to adapt to the particular problems of each game. They never scorn the accurate long ball. They counterattack purposefully, especially when Steve Staunton gets up a head of steam, and this afternoon the moment United start to speculate with punts out of defence, the wise money will be on Villa.