Robson's proud return to familiar territory

Glenn Moore on the Premiership weekend ahead
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Old Trafford's medical room will be ready and the St John's Ambulance service has cancelled all leave: Robbo is coming home. Injury problems in the Middlesbrough camp mean that their player-manager, Bryan Robson, may be on the substitutes' bench on his return to Manchester United. The chances of his team also emerging unscathed are much higher than anyone would have anticipated at the start of the season, even with Juninho expected to remain on the sidelines.

Robson can feel a justifiable pride in his team. They stand fourth in the Premiership - Manchester United are second - and have been beaten only once. That was at Newcastle and even then they ought to have had the chance of a last-minute penalty equaliser.

While the signings of Juninho, Nick Barmby and Jan Age Fjortoft have caught the attention, Robson has followed the sound managerial principle of building his team from the back. Boro have conceded four Premiership goals in 10 games and kept four successive clean sheets. However, there is a change in this formidable barrier. A groin injury to Derek Whyte means the central defensive trio of Steve Vickers, Whyte and Nigel Pearson is being broken up for the first time in the Premiership.

They have only been separated for two Coca-Cola Cup ties, and the omens are not good. In the first they conceded a goal to Rotherham, in the second, on Wednesday, Crystal Palace scored twice in the first 10 minutes and could easily have had more. Phil Whelan replaces Whyte - and finally starts a game for Boro - seven months after joining them moments too late on transfer deadline day.

Barmby is equally important. All but two of Boro's Premiership goals - both penalties - have been scored or made by the England striker. His raiding partner, Craig Hignett, is becoming almost as influential with six goals, including the last three in the League. A timely treble, given that he is regarded as the most likely sacrifice for Juninho. However, Hignett is doubtful after being injured against Palace. If he plays he will be one of only four Boro survivors from their last trip to Old Trafford three seasons ago. Then they lost 3-0 on the way to being relegated. It was not one of Robson's 457 United appearances - he was injured.

Relegation is something with which Manchester City are becoming increasingly more concerned, and Alan Ball's side must be wondering when their fortunes will improve. An improbable two-goal success for City against Liverpool would lift them off the bottom - Bolton do not play until Monday. Having lost 4-0 at Anfield in midweek they will not be travelling with any optimism, however. Liverpool will go third if they win.

The leaders, Newcastle, have also been stolen from the Saturday programme by television but, whatever happens today, they will be top going into tomorrow's match at Tottenham. It is an opportunity for Les Ferdinand to demonstrate his continued progress to his mentor, Gerry Francis. Francis will be hoping his new protege, Chris Armstrong, can show why he regards him as Ferdy Mark II.

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