Holiday presents risk and chance for United

Clive White on a potentially decisive weekend for Premiership contenders
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The Independent Online
Manchester United were rumoured yesterday to be interested in signing Stefan Schwarz from Fiorentina for pounds 7m. But should results go awry for them today it will take more than over-priced Arsenal "rejects"- even dependable midfield workhorses like the Swede - for the champions to go galloping after those thoroughbred Gunners come the end of this holiday period.

The match at Old Trafford against combative Sunderland is one which Alex Ferguson's side will almost certainly have to win if they are to stay roughly in touch with Arsene Wenger's team, who, providing they can accommodate the loss through suspension of Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira, should regain the leadership of the Premiership at bottom of the table Nottingham Forest. If they do (and much could depend on how effectively the Frenchman Remi Garde deputises for his inspirational fellow countryman Vieira) they can reasonably anticipate maximum points from the remainder of their games up to and including New Year's Day.

United's four fixtures till then look similarly favourable although they will have to get back to winning ways quite sharpishly after three draws in four games.

"Normally we have our dodgy spell over Christmas," Peter Schmeichel, their Danish international goalkeeper, said. "Last year we had a terrible Christmas but we still went on to win the Double. But we have had too many bad results this season to be able to afford a bad Christmas this time, so we have got to put things right and win the games over the festive season. I believe that if we manage to put a good run together like we have had every year then we will go on and win it again."

At the moment United are lagging nine points behind the leaders, Liverpool, who have played one more game. Last Christmas Eve they stood 10 points behind Newcastle United and we all know how that pursuit turned out.

Last Christmas United got just what they wanted - a home win over Newcastle. This time Ferguson will be praying - perhaps for the only time in the last couple of seasons - that Kevin Keegan's troubled side pull off a win, against Liverpool at St James' Park on Monday, a meeting which at Anfield last season precipitated the Geordies' downfall. With Aston Villa receiving their Coca-Cola Cup conquerors, the unbeatable Dons, tomorrow, the Saturday programme has been robbed of four of the top five clubs. Villa look well-placed for a spot of revenge over Wimbledon, whose 19th match without defeat last week against Blackburn showed signs of fatigue.

That said, a fiercely demanding run of fixtures over the next couple of weeks could bring Villa's challenge to its knees, with Everton easily the best placed to claim their top-six position.

Avoiding defeat will again be the object of the exercise for Leeds at Goodison Park. The manner in which George Graham's side has chiselled 11 points out of the last 18 has made his old Arsenal look positively gung-ho by comparison. But should he deem to bring the Ghanaian Tony Yeboah off the bench - the pair having settled their differences - for his first senior game in eight months, Yorkshiremen may be reminded that it was not all drudgery under Howard Wilkinson.

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