Now Wimbledon have influence all they need is more friends

Phil Shaw examines the weekend's action in the Premiership and Nationwide League
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The Independent Online
Wimbledon have London to themselves this weekend, at least in terms of the Premiership, and can cut Arsenal's lead to a single point by beating Blackburn at Selhurst Park. Even allowing for the counter-pull of Christmas shopping, if Joe Kinnear's team cannot draw a crowd today then Dublin may not be such a daft idea after all.

The Dons' average attendance of 15,500, while higher than that of their landlords, Crystal Palace, is inflated by the fact that they have already played Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham. The figure for Blackburn should be a true reflection of whether their football is winning the new friends it deserves.

Vinnie Jones will be absent, leading the land of his distant forefathers, as Wimbledon strive to maintain the most unexpected championship challenge since Ipswich triumphed in 1962. Blackburn, 17th but stirring, learned yesterday that Tony Parkes is prepared to continue as caretaker/manager until the summer, when Sven Goran Eriksson is free to join them.

Liverpool, trailing Wimbledon on goals scored, receive Middlesborough anxious to improve on a record of two points from the last nine available at home. They think they have problems: Boro have lost 22 and won just seven of the last 40 League games.

The errant Emerson, who looked world-class when Bryan Robson's men won on the other side of Stanley Park in September - their last victory - is set to return. Robson may also be tempted to man-mark Steve McManaman, as Sheffield Wednesday did so successfully.

Roy Evans, dismayed that stopping the wandering wonder meant stopping Liverpool, could recall Stan Collymore and/or Jamie Redknapp to redress imbalance between functionalism and flair. But with the Teessiders desperate for "a result" to stifle rumblings of disquiet over Robson's management, no one should hold their breath for a repeat of August's 3-3 goalfest.

As Eric Cantona has discovered, hell hath no fury like a Leeds fan scorned. John Scales can expect similar vilification if Gerry Francis gives the England defender his Spurs debut at Elland Road.

Scales' decision to reject Leeds was, he claimed, based on football criteria. That raised the intriguing possibility of an ex-Wimbledon player having qualms about the Yorkshire side's rugged approach of late, although the stronger likelihood is that Spurs plan to switch to a three-man defence. Scales excelled in such a system at Liverpool, as does Colin Calderwood with Scotland.

George Graham at last has a new face in his squad, though supporters may have been underwhelmed by the acquisition of Oldham's Gunnar Halle (what is it, incidentally, with Graham and Norwegians?).

Chelsea, having vindicated Graham's view that they would not fancy Leeds in the wind and rain, venture even further north tomorrow, to the sub- Arctic outpost that is Sunderland. The southern softies will, doubtless, be wearing gloves and thermal vests. As everyone knows, they do not have cold weather in London or Italy.

In the First Division, Bolton no longer have the look of runaway champions, though a home match against Ipswich should enable them to keep their distance from Sheffield United, whose resurgence faces a stern examination at Oxford.

The Second Division's outstanding fixture sends leaders Brentford to fifth-placed Burnley. Even Turf Moor's traditionally substantial support will be dwarfed, however, by the turn-out for tomorrow's Bristol derby, an occasion given added spice by Rovers' return to the city.

Meanwhile, Hull's visit to Brighton in the Third Division offers the bizarre prospect of both sets of fans remaining outside the ground to demonstrate against the respective chairmen.

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