Old Trafford hosts battle of the money men

Tomorrow could see the match of the season. Phil Shaw previews the week end's football.
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The Independent Online
Whichever way you look at it - champions versus leaders, Cole and Cantona head to head with Shearer and Sutton, or the Premiership's best home record against the best away one - tomorrow's meeting of Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers is the m atch of the season.

After a week when Tony Blair articulated legitimate concern about greed in the game, it might also be viewed as a clash between old money and new money; the Chequebook Championship decider.

Hard as it is to set aside such arguments with Andy Cole's £7m valuation under scrutiny for the first time, only those afflicted by terminal romanticism will not be stirred by the tactical and psychological struggle in prospect at Old Trafford.

As a former shop steward, Alex Ferguson, the United manager, may not take kindly to the analogy, but in some ways United have become like the Government. Their biggest bugbear is Europe, Eric Cantona's antics are often sleazy, and commercial imperatives appear all-pervasive. When push comes to shove, they also tend to prevail.

However, the leaders of the opposition currently look more threatening than at any time since Leeds overturned United's majority three years ago.

The swing to Blackburn - five points clear with a match in hand - has been pronounced of late. Despite their FA Cup exit, which could be a blessing for Kenny Dalglish's now distraction-free team, they have amassed 34 points out of the last 36, and would regard a repeat of last season's draw in this fixture as a moral victory.

As the home side needing to win, United must try to set a tempo to knock Blackburn out of their calm-passing stride. Much will depend on how quickly they adjust to having to make a different kind of delivery to the strikers. Cole likes to run on to passes speared through or cut back, whereas his new colleagues are accustomed to finding Mark Hughes, whose game is about linking with midfield and tends to play with his back to goal.

In that respect, Cantona's chameleon qualities could be crucial. If he can adapt to Cole's requirements, the alliance of the Frenchman's vision and the newcomer's pace is likely to render redundant the tactic of massing across the edge of the penalty area which helped Nottingham Forest win at Old Trafford.

Blackburn would then have to slug it out with United in midfield, where Paul Ince's return might give the hosts the edge. But as an over-zealous referee's dismissal of Henning Berg demonstrated when United turned probable defeat into a 4-2 success last time they met, the outcome could turn on forces beyond the control of any of the highly-priced participants.

The Berg incident clearly still rankles with Dalglish. "I just hope the officials will be able to handle the atmosphere and pressures," he said pointedly. Ferguson, meanwhile, called for the home supporters to recreate the cacophony that greeted Barcelona.

Curious, with the advantage of hindsight, to reflect that George Graham once deemed Kevin Campbell a better bet than Cole. Arsenal fans gave Graham the benefit of an admittedly slender doubt, but the worm may turn with a vengeance in the event of a further flop at Coventry today.

Disquiet with Graham has spread after Arsenal's exit from the two domestic cups, which followed allegations of transfer irregularities, Paul Merson's gambling and drinking problems, and results which have left them four points above the relegation zone. According to press reports, vigorously denied by the Arsenal manager yesterday, it is rife in the dressing-room.

At least the Gunners will not have to face Peter Ndlovu, the scorer of a brilliant winner at West Bromwich this week as he is playing for Zimbabwe against Cameroon tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Manchester City's visit to Tottenham offers a chance to compare Uwe Rosler with Jurgen Klinsmann, although another former Bundesliga forward, Anthony Yeboah, did not arrive in time to be considered for Leeds' match at Leicester. Leeds, in fact, were left with egg on their faces yesterday, after again being forced to cancel the unveiling of Yeboah.

Lee Chapman, the maligned marksman Howard Wilkinson has never replaced, stands by for his 12th debut - for Ipswich at home to Chelsea - a week after a goalscoring 11th on loan to Southend.

A defender of similar vintage, Steve Nicol, faces a novel experience after all the medal-laden years at Liverpool. The Scot makes his first appearance for the First Division's bottom club, Notts County, at Sunderland, after joining Howard Kendall on a free transfer.

Arsenal on stage, page 46