Pride provides spur with ambitions blurred

Guy Hodgson considers the impact on this weekend's action in the Premiership of Uefa's planned changes to their competitions
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They are hopelessly unrealistic, of course, but there are some people who cling to the quaint idea that success in football should not be dictated by who you are but what you do. After this week, there must be some relegation-safe clubs who are wondering if trying in the Premiership is worth it.

Take Blackburn. Normally today's match against the Premiership's second club, Manchester United, would have value beyond three points for Rovers as victory at Old Trafford would help their Uefa Cup quest. Now, after the midweek changes to the European club competitions, they are not so sure.

Would United qualify ahead of them by dint of reputation even if Blackburn finished in front of the Mancunians in the League table? Not to mention Liverpool, Arsenal and Leeds all of whom have better records than the Ewood Park club over the last five years.

Blackburn, who are sixth, will, of course, be trying their socks off - last season's rivalry in the championship would ensure an origami competition would be bitterly fought - but until Uefa, the governing body of European football, confirm the criteria for qualification for competitions, clubs above half-way will be in the dark as to their European aspirations.

One player who could be emerging from his personal darkness today is David May, who may appear for United against his old club as Steve Bruce has a gashed head and Gary Neville is suspended. Either he or Paul Parker will play alongside Gary Pallister in a shored-up back four trying to suppress Alan Shearer, whose hat-trick against Bolton last week took his haul for the season to 30.

"It would be nice to play against Alan again," said May, at Blackburn until his pounds 1.4m transfer in July 1994, voicing a view at odds with that of most centre-backs. "I must have faced him thousands of times in training. He is a very hard player, give him half a chance and he will score, or definitely hit the target."

Pallister's only appearance in United's last 13 games came in the FA Cup third round against Sunderland, while May, originally drafted in as his replacement, suffered hamstring trouble during the Christmas programme to continue a sequence of injuries. "Somebody somewhere has got it in for me," May said. "Just as I seem to be doing well something seems to happen."

Middlesbrough have kept going in the wrong direction since they purchased Juninho in October. Before the Riverside Stadium pounded to the samba, they had acquired 21 points from 10 matches, since they have picked up only 12 from 14 and are anxiously contemplating wrestling with relegation.

That, it should be said, is more due to injuries than the Brazilian's arrival but their current run is six successive League defeats. As they face the Premiership leaders, Newcastle, a less-than-magnificent seven is likely unless the maxim that position is irrelevent in a derby applies.

"We are determined to get back our early-season form when we set such high standards and raised expectation," Nigel Pearson, Boro's captain, said. "We were unlucky to lose at Newcastle in August and that will be an encouragement."

If the free-scoring Newcastle strikers need any encouragement, it will be provided by the presence of Faustino Asprilla who will watch his new team-mates for the first time since his pounds 6.7m transfer from Parma.

Joe Royle, the Everton manager, also believes an early-season fixture will have a bearing on today's match, at home to Manchester City. The Mersey-siders won 2-0 at Maine Road without playing particularly well, an occasion that his opposite number, Alan Ball, regarded as their nadir this season.

"I think I know better than most what makes Bally tick," said Royle, who played with Ball at Everton in the Sixties. "He didn't say much after that match but I knew he was hurting inside. He'll be dying to have a go back at us."