Kinnear dreams of repeating Newcastle's title tumble

Phil Shaw looks at the portents in this weekend's Premiership programme
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The Independent Online
As the venue where the wheels finally came off Eric Cantona's antics roadshow, Selhurst Park is arguably the place where the Premiership was won and lost last season. Manchester United supporters will be hoping, though hardly expecting, that this unremarkable suburban stadium proves the setting for a turning point in their favour tomorrow.

One aspect of the English game cited as evidence of merit compared with, say, the Netherlands or Spain, is the ability of the bottom teams to beat those in the higher reaches. Lowly Wimbledon, who receive the leaders, Newcastle, at the ground they share with Crystal Palace, did little for the theory in their last meeting, seven weeks ago, losing 7-1 on Tyneside.

Yet when the sides met in London a year ago last month, 18th-placed Wimbledon inflicted on Newcastle only their second defeat and dislodged them from the top to boot. To dwell on the collapse that result sparked is to uncover the dark side of the Toon; psychological scars which festered until the spring. Hence the Geordie joy, tempered with relief, that Kevin Keegan's team held their nerve during November this time.

Joe Kinnear, the Dons' manager, would have been entitled to a wry smile at the way Liverpool sought to probe Newcastle's alleged lack of pace in central defence with Wimbledon-style long balls over the top in Wednesday's Coca-Cola Cup tie. He also knows only too well that the covering speed of Warren Barton, whom he sold to Keegan in the summer, is as as good an insurance against such a threat as money can buy.

Even if the occasion tricks Vinnie Jones and Co into rekindling the Crazy Gang spirit, it may not be enough to stop a side bursting with confidence after 12 wins and two draws since their blip at Southampton.

Manchester United can close the gap to two points by beating Chelsea today. In terms of the clubs' relative standings, not to mention United's recent 4-1 win at Stamford Bridge, it looks a formality. However, several factors make Alex Ferguson wary, not least Chelsea's remarkable record of just two defeats in their last 20 trips to Old Trafford.

The absence of Peter Schmeichel, which means a first Premiership start for Kevin Pilkington, may also sow doubts in United's minds. Pilkington, a 21-year-old from Hitchin who last played in the 3-0 home defeat by York in the Coca-Cola Cup, has the unenviable task of stopping Mark Hughes from adding to the goal he scored in his first reunion with United.

Hughes, recalling that it was the first time he had ever been cheered by both sets of fans, referred to "both challengers" for the championship. It is too early to write off any of the pursuing pack, although increasingly it looks as if it would take an extraordinary run to prevent a carve-up between the Uniteds.

Two of their number, Aston Villa and Arsenal, meet head on, with Villa a vastly different proposition to the side who surrendered 4-0 at home to the post-Graham, pre-Rioch Gunners in April. Brian Little was too negative in his tactical approach at Highbury in October, and will be keen to redress the balance at the expense of one of his closest friends.

Tottenham, now up to fifth, also have a score to settle from April - namely the 4-1 thumping Everton gave them in the FA Cup semi-final - while Liverpool entertain Southampton urgently needing to end a run of five defeats and a draw.

The last team they beat, Manchester City, have hardly looked back since. They go to Leeds with 10 points from four matches that this week earned Alan Ball the season's most unexpected Manager of the Month award.