Newcastle face another grey day

Guy Hodgson looks forward to the weekend's crucial Premiership games
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The Independent Online
The Newcastle United of panache seems to have problems getting out of the North-east at the moment. Place them on Tyneside and there is no more invigorating sight in English football, distance them from where the supportive pulse beats strongest and the black and white seems to pale.

They have not won outside St James' Park since 29 November and if that Coca-Cola Cup win over Liverpool is subtracted, the sum is even worse. Invincible at home, Newcastle are anything but on their travels and you have to go back to their 3-2 win at Queen's Park Rangers on 14 October for the last time they prevailed away in the League.

That, more than anything, is sustaining a dwindling chasing pack who would otherwise have grounds for despair, given the seven-point lead Newcastle have at the top of the Premiership and that Kevin Keegan has no intention of going overboard to become the England manager.

Nevertheless, Keegan is more aware than anyone that Newcastle's position is not impregnable. "You can't put plaudits in the trophy cabinet," was his snorted reply when it was pointed out his team are winning the applause of the neutral. "We need to improve."

Tomorrow's visit to Coventry will gauge whether the midweek defeat at Arsenal has had a draining effect on confidence. "We have got to get back to basics," Keegan continued. "We know it will be a tough game and if we play like we did on Wednesday we will make it tougher. They could turn us over."

Manchester United are the team with the clearest view of the leaders, although they have looked more dead than red in the away matches too, recently. At least Alex Ferguson, the United manager, can select from a stronger hand this time for today's home game against Aston Villa, with Peter Schmeichel and Paul Scholes both fit.

There is also the considerable bonus that Andy Cole seems to be operating on somewhere near the same wavelength as his team-mates. He has scored four times in his last five matches, after a spell when he did not look as though he could strike a match and had the happy omen of knowing he got his first goal for United against today's opponents 12 months ago.

"I have broad shoulders," Cole said, and they have become even broader since moving to Old Trafford. "I have grown up a lot. I knew it was going to be difficult, but I have always believed I can score goals."

Cole's main barriers will be two former United players, Paul McGrath and Mark Bosnich, neither of whom will feel inclined to usher the striker towards greater maturity. "I had a fantastic spell at Old Trafford," Bosnich, the Villa goalkeeper, said, "and I will always be grateful to the coaching staff, who helped bring me along. It would be great to get a result. We have got to be positive if we want to get into Europe."

No team are more positive at the moment than Liverpool, who have scored 20 goals in their last six matches, accruing five wins and a draw. They travel to Sheffield Wednesday with Newcastle coming into sight and with Neil Ruddock and Phil Babb fit again. They are likely to replace the suspended Mark Wright and Steve Harkness.

Eight days ago, there were grounds for believing Wednesday were viable FA Cup winners, but they subsided in a desperate performance at Charlton. John Scales, the Liverpool central defender, believes that Wednesday's reaction to that defeat will be Liverpool's greatest threat.

"They will want to bounce back from a bad, bad result," he said, "and they'll be anxious to make amends, particularly in front of their own supporters. It will be a difficult game."

As it will be at Burnden Park, where Bolton's chances of survival will look even more hopeless if they cannot defeat fellow-strugglers Wimbledon. Their new coach, Ian Porterfield - a brave man - has been studying videos of recent performances and has lambasted the lack of concentration, particularly towards the end of games.

"We needed a kick up the backside," Alan Stubbs, the Bolton captain, said. "There have been some real video nasties." His supporters would certainly agree.