Pride and passion will fill Maine Road

Phil Shaw previews a weekend where local honour is as crucial as Premiership points
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The Independent Online
After the intoxicating drama of Anfield, the three-way race for the championship today runs smack into the six-team scramble to avoid the toxic trauma of relegation. For those who come off worse in the collision, the damage will go deeper than mere morale.

Local honour will be a factor in the Manchester derby at Maine Road, although United - three points clear of Newcastle with a game more played, and five ahead of Liverpool - have found visits to 16th-placed City less than fraught in recent times. Last season Alex Ferguson's men added a 3-0 romp to the 5-0 rout at Old Trafford.

City, indeed, have not beaten their neighbours since Mel Machin was manager in 1989. The T-shirts which proclaimed "Mel's Marvels 5, Fergie's Wallet 1" have long since turned to tatters. Symbolic, some might say, of their relationship to United, although the signs have been more positive during Alan Ball's reign.

In the meetings this season, one in the Premiership and the more recent one in the FA Cup, United won only 1-0 and 2-1. On the latter occasion, they needed an outrageous penalty award to kick-start them after Georgi Kinkladze had performed the rare feat of out-scheming Eric Cantona.

"The gap in the table is very big, but the gap between the teams is getting closer," Ball said. "They'll certainly take us seriously. We won't roll over like we've done before.

"None of our fans should be talking about suicide if United do the double over us. They are what we want to be. But we're only just starting. They've got a five-year start over us. Everything's in place there."

City's best hope may lie in the aerial power of Niall Quinn. Steve Bruce hopes to return for United but, if he is forced to sit out the match with Gary Pallister, the leaders will be short of height in defence. Mikhail Kavelashvili, Kinkladze's fellow Georgian, is set for a momentous debut but, with Steve Lomas suspended and Garry Flitcroft sold, City may find it hard to win enough of the ball to supply their strikers.

As Ball is fond of pointing out, his Southampton side lost all three Easter matches two years ago, yet stayed up. His comments found an echo this week from Ron Atkinson. Coventry, bottom but one, receive Liverpool before going to United on Monday, but their manager asserted: "There's no rule that says we can't take 18 points from the last six games."

Indeed not, except that Coventry have so far managed only five wins out of 32. History, in the shape of 4-0 and 5-1 victories over Liverpool in 1983 and '92 respectively, shows what can be done. More pertinently, they won at Anfield soon after Atkinson's arrival last year, and also drew there in the autumn.

Queen's Park Rangers, one place above Coventry, may be unsure what to expect at Newcastle. Will it be a backlash - or has the manner of their defeat at Liverpool drained Kevin Keegan's team of their self-belief? Darren Peacock deputises for the injured Steve Howey, although the player most likely to push QPR towards the drop is another of their old boys, Les Ferdinand.

It is also reunion day at Southampton, where Blackburn hope to have Alan Shearer fit to join Tim Flowers against his previous club. After six defeats in seven games, what better time for that fallen Saint, Matthew Le Tissier to play like an angel once more? It may stiffen Southampton's resolve to learn that Aston Villa's press adverts for Monday carry the insensitive selling point: "Saints on the brink!"

Villa's Ugo Ehiogu has an incentive to excel in the game between the beaten FA Cup semi-finalists at Chelsea, which may otherwise have an end- of-season flavour. In the absence of Howey, Pallister, Tony Adams and Gareth Southgate, the uncapped 23-year-old is the only one of Terry Venables' England centre-backs currently in action.

The Endsleigh League champions-elect, Sunderland, must improve on a record of one win in eight visits to Barnsley to keep Derby and Crystal Palace at bay. Most First Division matches have some bearing on promotion and relegation, with some clubs, notably Birmingham, unsure which they are involved in.

Six of the Second Division's top seven meet while, in the Third, Gillingham's disappointment at seeing Preston open up a five-point lead could be assuaged by the news that a place in the record books could still be theirs. They have leaked just 18 goals - Port Vale set the landmark for the lower divisions with 21 in 1953/54 - and today tackle Hartlepool, who have not scored on their last six visits.