Newcastle face a testing time

Phil Shaw looks at the weekend's football as the Premiership struggle intensifies
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The Independent Online
When Newcastle led the Premiership by 12 points, the straw at which their pursuers clutched was the severity of their final away fixtures. Today, a solitary goal ahead of Manchester United, albeit with two games in hand, the period when "Away the lads" could become "no way the lads" is upon them.

Twenty-five hours before Old Trafford receives Tottenham in what is traditionally one of the season's epic occasions, Kevin Keegan's side face Arsenal in what seems certain to be a tense, attritional affair. Next weekend Newcastle go to Liverpool, whose rich vein of form makes it a three-way race, and they still have matches at Blackburn and Leeds to come.

The strain of leadership caught up with Newcastle a month back, and it was evident that they played with greater freedom against West Ham on Monday when starting in second place. Arsenal, however, will be obdurate opponents, even though Tony Adams will not be fit after all to confront Les Ferdinand, who has never scored at Highbury.

After his outlay on Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt, Bruce Rioch expected Arsenal to be challenging themselves. Nevertheless, their players still have a chance of qualifying for the Uefa Cup, as well as the incentive of performing sufficiently well to survive Rioch's threatened purge or, indeed, of attracting would-be buyers.

Terry Venables will be at the game, which features six of his squad for Wednesday's visit of Bulgaria. Platt, who has missed England's last four matches, could regain the captaincy from Adams if he impresses the national coach.

Spurs take one of the division's best away records to Manchester. Yet with Colin Calderwood the latest in a long list of casualties, they look better equipped for the counter-attacking part of the game plan with which Arsenal frustrated United for more than an hour in midweek than for the massing-behind-the-ball aspect.

Alex Ferguson may omit Andy Cole for the first time in the 14 months since his pounds 7m signing, with Paul Scholes set to step in. Scholes, nine goals from 14 starts this season, came on against Arsenal for Cole, who has the same tally from 27, after the latter squandered a series of chances.

A further seven of Venables' charges are in action at Nottingham, where Liverpool's burgeoning self-belief is likely to be strong enough to counter any backlash factor Forest may muster in the aftermath of their humbling by Bayern Munich. The welcome for Stan Collymore, from both his former team-mates and those who revered him on the Trent End, should add spice to the occasion.

At the bottom, the game will surely be up for Bolton if they do not overcome Sheffield Wednesday in the second of three consecutive home games. The first was lost, to Spurs, deflating the feel-good factor generated by a trio of away victories. Aidan Davison continues in goal knowing that Bradford City's Gavin Ward would probably have replaced him had Bolton's pounds 250,000 offer not failed.

Manchester City, having banked pounds 3.2m from the sale of Garry Flitcroft, appear almost as likely as Barry Fry to enter the transfer market before Thursday's deadline. Alan Ball's logic - that City are well covered for midfielders - will cut little ice with fans if their revival falters at West Ham, where the home side have won four of their last five matches.

A City victory, perhaps in tandem with a point or more for Wimbledon at Everton in a fixture redolent of relegation escapes, would intensify the pressure on both Southampton and Coventry ahead of Monday's six-pointer at The Dell.