Sky begins to fall in on Atkinson

Phil Shaw previews a crucial weekend for some key figures in the Premiership
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The Independent Online
Ron Atkinson is fond of saying that he is the best five-a-side player at Coventry, even at 56. If true, it may explain why his team go into today's match against Blackburn as the Premiership's bottom club.

Like Aston Villa in his final months there, Coventry have forgotten how to win. There are lies, damned lies and football statistics, but whichever way Atkinson's recent record is examined, it does not augur well for the Sky Blues' prospects of seeing in what would be a remarkable 30th successive season in the top division.

His troubles began soon after Villa reached the Coca-Cola Cup final last year. Out of 55 League matches since then - a sequence interrupted by his sacking at Villa - Atkinson has presided over 31 defeats and just 10 victories. Coventry's most recent win came back in August.

In the circumstances, a visit by the resurgent champions is not a fixture he would have chosen. Blackburn arrive hot from a 4-1 win in the European Cup - witnessed by Atkinson in his role as TV pundit - whereas Coventry start with 36 goals in their "against" column.

When Alan Shearer and Mike Newell score hat-tricks, as they have in the past week, they end up on the winning side. Dion Dublin's treble at Sheffield Wednesday on Monday, which gave the Coventry the lead three times in a 4-3 reverse, meant he had hit seven goals in six games without that satisfaction.

Coventry revealed this week that they are pounds 9m in debt and paying pounds 8,000 a week in interest charges. Atkinson was still able to contemplate signing Crystal Palace's Chris Coleman for a club record pounds 2.5m yesterday, but had to settle for borrowing Chris Whyte, 34, from Birmingham for a month.

At the other end of the table, Newcastle play at Chelsea hoping that the 3-3 scrape at Wimbledon does not herald another dismal December. This month last year they won only one in five to scupper their title challenge, and they should find Chelsea fortified by a draw at Manchester United as well as a seasonal outbreak of goodwill between Matthew Harding and the suitably hirsute Ken Bates.

Manchester United have another home match, against Sheffield Wednesday, in which to rediscover their rhythm, though for once City are the city's form side. Having taken 13 points out of 15, Alan Ball's team meet Middlesbrough in a contest likely to turn on the wiles of two pocket dynamos, Juninho and Georgi Kinkladze.

Bolton are in the relegation zone and Liverpool in the upper reaches, yet defeat for the visitors at Burnden Park would plunge Anfield into the greater crisis. Seven games without a win means, by their own standards, that Liverpool are in one already. Scott Sellars makes his Bolton debut after signing from Newcastle, while Roy Evans gives a first start of the season to Nigel Clough.

Meanwhile, Villa, where an alleged surfeit of veterans contributed to Atkinson's demise, expect to field one of the youngest sides in their history at Nottingham Forest tomorrow. Brian Little's team is likely to have an average age of 23, with Ian Taylor, 27, closest to collecting his bus-pass.