Lee holds key to contest

Newcastle United v Manchester United tonight could be the Premiership decider. Glenn Moore looks at the big decisions facing Kevin Keegan and Alex Ferguson prior to the kick-off
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The Independent Online
For weeks Manchester United have been portraying the championship run-in as a test of nerve. So it is, but it is also a test of judgement.

Both Kevin Keegan and Alex Ferguson have proved, over the last few years, to be exceptionally good judges - their respective clubs would not be first and second if they were not. They rarely get the big decisions, the trading of players, the selection of teams, wrong. But they are not infallible.

Ferguson's mistakes have been more prominent, partly because Manchester United have played more big matches in the last few seasons, partly because he tends to own up to them. Remember the stricken face of Peter Schmeichel after he was left out against Barcelona, or the omission of Mark Hughes against Galatasaray.

Keegan was also caught out in Europe, his team's adventurousness being punished by Bilbao. Few other errors come to mind but he has recently risked unsettling his side, both by the switch from playing four to five defenders, and by the introduction of Faustino Asprilla.

Tonight both managers' judgement is again on the line. Send the wrong XI out of the dressing-room and the title could be gone.

Keegan has already shown his astuteness in dealing himself an extra card to play. It emerged yesterday that David Batty is available after all. It was thought that Batty was suspended but Newcastle have exploited a little-known loophole to wipe that out.

Batty began his suspension on 22 February and missed Blackburn's match with Liverpool two days later. In midweek he was transferred to Newcastle yet, as far as the suspension period was concerned, he remained at Blackburn.

An FA press officer explained: "A suspension may be served with one club only." Batty thus completed his ban by being "suspended" for Blackburn's visit to Manchester City on Saturday. "Had Newcastle's match with Manchester United also been on Saturday he could not have played," said the spokesman, "as he would still have been under suspension. On the face of it this is a loophole." One the FA are now likely to close.

The big decision for Keegan now is whether to play his latest recruit. He already has to find room for Rob Lee, who has recovered from injury. With Roy Keane and Nicky Butt in rampaging form the midfield is a key area, but Batty is hardly match-fit having been frozen out at Blackburn since January.

Batty may thus start on the bench, reducing Keegan's dilemmas to two. Who to drop for Rob Lee, and how many defenders to play? If he reverts to a flat back four Lee is likely to come in for Philippe Albert, scorer of two goals and creator of the other at Maine Road last week. If he plays five, Lee would step in for Lee Clark and play a holding role. Though Lee does it well, it is not his natural game.

Playing five defenders gives Warren Barton and John Beresford scope to push forward from full-back, which might keep Manchester United's wingers busy - but may leave space behind them for Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe to run into. With Eric Cantona playing deep, it would also leave three men picking up Andy Cole, forcing Steve Howey to push into midfield to watch Cantona.

With four defenders Clark could help look after Cantona while Lee would be released to make his late runs into the box. However, it invites Manchester United's wingers on to the full-backs.

Andy Cole will be playing his first match at St James' Park since his transfer. His goal against Newcastle in December showed he can still finish, but he continues to struggle to do so regularly. While he scored at Bolton last week his goal, blazed in off the underside of the bar, was in marked contrast to the cool way Paul Scholes took his brace. Scholes remains United's top scorer, despite hardly playing since September. Does Ferguson ever lie awake in the small hours wondering, if he had dropped Cole for Scholes, if his United would now be top, not Newcastle's?

Dropping Cole would be an admission of an almighty mistake, and it certainly will not happen tonight. No one knows what will happen. Peter Beardsley fears it will be an anticlimax; Sky - the only sure winner - hope it will be a goal-fest. Meanwhile Liverpool, watching with interest from the sidelines, will be cheering through gritted teeth for Manchester.

Title showdowns: the path to the summit

1994: Man Utd's year How they stood on 1 March

Pld Pts

Manchester Utd 29 68

Blackburn 30 61

Arsenal 30 51

Final table

Pld Pts

Manchester Utd 42 92

Blackburn 42 84

Newcastle 42 77

Matches between top two

Man Utd 1 Blackburn 1

Blackburn 2 Man Utd 0

Cost of Manchester United squad

Peter Schmeichel pounds 550,000

Steve Bruce pounds 800,000

Denis Irwin pounds 625,000

Paul Parker pounds 1.8m

Gary Pallister pounds 2.3m

Paul Ince pounds 1.5m

Roy Keane pounds 3.75m

Andrei Kanchelskis pounds 650,000

Lee Sharpe pounds 150,000

Brian McClair pounds 850,000

Bryan Robson pounds 1.5m

Ryan Giggs --

Mark Hughes pounds 1.8m

Eric Cantona pounds 1.2m

Dion Dublin pounds 1m

Total pounds 18.475m

1995: Blackburn's year How they stood on 1 March

Pld Pts

Blackburn 30 66

Manchester United 30 63

Newcastle 30 57

Final table

Pld Pts

Blackburn 42 89

Manchester United 42 88

Nottm Forest 42 77

Matches between top two

Blackburn 2 Man Utd 4

Man Utd 1 Blackburn 0

Cost of Blackburn squad

Tim Flowers pounds 2m

Henning Berg pounds 423,000

Colin Hendry pounds 750,000

David Batty pounds 2.75m

Graeme Le Saux pounds 600,000

Paul Warhurst pounds 2.7m

Ian Pearce pounds 300,000

Stuart Ripley pounds 1.3m

Tim Sherwood pounds 500,000

Jason Wilcox --

Robbie Slater pounds 300,000

Mark Atkins pounds 45,000

Chris Sutton pounds 5m

Alan Shearer pounds 3.3m

Mike Newell pounds 1.1m

Total pounds 21.068m

1996: Newcastle's year? How they stand on 4 March

Pld Pts

Newcastle 27 61

Manchester Utd 28 57

Liverpool 28 55

Match between top two

Man Utd 2 Newcastle 0

Cost of Newcastle squad

Shaka Hislop pounds 1.57m

Warren Barton pounds 4m

John Beresford pounds 650,000

Darren Peacock pounds 2.7m

Steve Howey --

Robert Lee pounds 700,000

Peter Beardsley pounds 1.35m

Keith Gillespie pounds 1m

Les Ferdinand pounds 6m

David Ginola pounds 2.5m

Paul Kitson pounds 2.25m

David Batty pounds 3.75m

Pavel Srnicek pounds 350,000

Philippe Albert pounds 2.7m

Faustino Asprilla pounds 6.7m

Total pounds 34.120m

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