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Football: Yorke fit as United reach for the stars

DWIGHT YORKE should be fit to return for Manchester United as they bid to go back to the top of the Premiership against Chelsea at Old Trafford tonight. To do so they must overcome the Chelsea jinx - the visitors have lost on only two of their last 23 visits. Indeed, United have won only one of their last nine home encounters with Chelsea.

The record books show that Chelsea have registered 10 victories and 11 draws in those 23 matches, including two wins and three draws in the five games since their last defeat - a 3-1 reverse in April 1993.

However, Chelsea face the ultimate test of their resurgence in what should prove a defining game in the title contest.

Chelsea are in fine form having recorded seven wins and eight draws in the league since they lost to Coventry on the opening day of the season, so Yorke's recovery is great news for the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson.

Yorke, who has been in outstanding form for United since his August move from Aston Villa and has scored 12 goals in 20 appearances, missed his first match last Saturday when a thigh strain ruled him out of the 2- 2 draw at Tottenham.

Ferguson said yesterday: "Dwight Yorke got a bit of a knock against Bayern Munich last week so we left him out on Saturday. Denis Irwin missed the game and Paul Scholes had a little bit of flu, but they are all fit and I have had a full squad to train with.

"The only one who missed training was Jaap Stam, who had a little bit of a shin injury, but he will be OK. All I have to do is pick the right team."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is likely to be the striker to make way for Yorke even though he scored both United goals against Tottenham.

Ferguson said of tonight's game: " There's a good chance for us to go top and it's going to be a terrific match against Chelsea. They have been in very good form this year and they have got a consistency about them which maybe Chelsea teams have lacked in the past."

Chelsea, who currently occupy fourth place, will be without their influential defender Franck Leboeuf due to suspension. The loss of Leboeuf, who sits on the sidelines after collecting five yellow cards, will be keenly felt because he has struck up a formidable partnership at the heart of a once- fallible defence with his fellow World Cup winner Marcel Desailly.

Michael Duberry is likely to deputise for Leboeuf, but the Blues have never looked quite as solid at the back this season when Desailly has been absent or pushed forward into central midfield.

At least Desailly, like several of his team-mates, will be fully rested for tonight's game after being left out of Saturday's 2-2 draw at Derby following the exertions of gaining an injury-time 2-1 win over Aston Villa last week.

Chelsea's rotation policy was again widely criticised at the weekend when the manager, Gianluca Vialli, made six changes to his starting line- up and Derby secured a late equaliser.

However, it means that Desailly, Albert Ferrer, Roberto Di Matteo and Celestine Babayaro, as well as Vialli, will have benefited from the extra recuperation time.

The critics should also consider that United employ a similar policy and dropped two points late on at Tottenham after leaving out Irwin, Scholes, Yorke and Andy Cole from their starting line-up.

Babayaro said: "Several of the players got rested for the Derby game including myself, so I'm feeling fresh.

"The United game is vital because everybody knows what they are capable of doing and hopefully we'll go out there and show that Chelsea are a team that everyone has to be scared of."

Chelsea's improved consistency this season makes them serious title contenders - apart from Coventry their only other defeat came in the Worthington Cup quarter-final at Wimbledon.

However, Chelsea will want to forget the crushing 5-3 defeat by United in the FA Cup third round at Stamford Bridge last January.

United were simply devastating as they cruised into a 5-0 lead before conceding three late goals, and the result was a hammer blow to Chelsea's morale and they did well to recover and win the Coca-Cola Cup and the Cup-Winners' Cup.

Babayaro admitted that the FA Cup result had a big effect on the team, who were also beaten 1-0 in the Premiership by United at Stamford Bridge in February.

However, the Nigerian international missed both of those games through injury and is determined to fulfil a personal goal in tonight's fixture. He said: "It will be a big day for me because United have been a team that I have always dreamed of playing against, so I'm looking forward to it."

It promises to be a fascinating contest between two teams with in-form strikers and question marks still remaining over their defences, and there is a ferocious central midfield battle in prospect between Dennis Wise and Roy Keane.

Titles are never won in December, but if Chelsea can emerge from their two games against United this month with their growing reputation untarnished they will at last have earned the right to be taken seriously.