THAT WAS THE WEEKEND THAT WAS

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Ferguson's

strip tease

After Saturday's announcement that Manchester United are to tour the Far East in July, some readers may be wondering how five matches in 18 days represents a schedule apparently unacceptable to Alex finest and yet three matches in six is OK.

The United manager has threatened to withdraw his players from England's end of season friendly games, fearful of the strain they will place on his players. Glenn Hoddle's side face a World Cup qualifier in Poland on 31 May, sandwiched between a friendly against South Africa at Old Trafford week earlier and a four-nation tournament in France starting on 3 June.

United's Oriental excursion in July, however, will involve fixtures in Bangkok on the 17th, in Hong Kong on the 20th and in Tokyo two days later, not to mention two changes of time zone and inter-connecting flights. The transfer from Hong Kong to Japan takes more than five hours.

The riddle may have a simple explanation, not unconnected, perhaps, with the contract United have with Umbro, who have reportedly paid a sum that could rise to pounds 60m for the reproduction rights to United's playing strip.

Umbro see the Far East as a market with huge potential and will be using United's visit as a sales platform, not only for United shirts but a range of other products.

"It is an area with considerable potential because of the massive interest in soccer there," Peter Draper, Umbro's UK marketing director, said. The company are official suppliers to Japan's J.League and recently signed individual deals with five Japanese clubs.

No place like home

for Italian exiles

"If I have to go to Grimsby next season then Ravanelli will be coming with me," Bryan Robson told a Sunday newspaper, insisting that all of Middlesbrough's foreign imports are tied to their contracts, come what may.

Not surprisingly, the view from Italy is that there is more likelihood of Parma hams sprouting wings than of Ravanelli playing in the First Division.

The latest edition of the football magazine Guerin Sportivo, for example, is in no doubt that the Middlesbrough striker will return home. They predict an 80 per cent chance of Ravanelli wearing a Milan shirt next season, with the only other possibility being that he joins Internazionale.

This is not the only forecast that might raise eyebrows among English supporters. Fans in Sheffield will not be thrilled to learn that cult figure Benito Carbone is rated only 50-50 to remain with Sheffield Wednesday, with an equal chance of his returning to Napoli, which he thinks of as his spiritual home.

Chelsea, it seems, cannot entirely be sure that Roberto di Matteo will not move to Milan (20 per cent), but could be joined by the Milan goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi (70 per cent). Pierluigi Casiraghi, meanwhile, is given a 50 per cent chance of leaving Lazio for Tottenham.

Meanwhile, the "business already done" column will be of particular interest to Nottingham Forest supporters. Among the "certain reinforcements" listed against Fiorentina is one Alf Inge Haaland.

MISTAKEN

IDENTITY

The rock of Arsenal and England has been discussing all manner of things in some frank interviews lately, from alcoholism to Arsene Wenger. But not, however, the secret he guards most closely - that he is leading a double life as an England fast bowler.

Take a bow

TREVOR FRANCIS

Who deserves a doff of the cap for his extraordinary faith in the Birmingham City board. "If we're still struggling this time next season I'll go," he said on Friday when questioned about his job security. You don't think you're just being a teeny bit presumptuous, do you, Trevor?

Red card

BBC

Out with Danny Baker, in with Richard Littlejohn. One boorish bawler giving way to another so far as this casual listener to Radio Five Live's pre-match phone-in could tell as the latter moves in behind the microphone on Saturday. Baker may have insulted and incited but at least he kept you awake.

Rumours...

fact and fiction from the Sunday papers

George Weah for Everton? The idea is not so far-fetched according to the Sunday People, who report an pounds 8m offer for Milan's striker. Joe Royle, they say, is also keen on Weah's team-mate Stefano Eranio, although the Mirror reckon his Italian target is the Roma midfielder Francesco Moriero. The People are not alone in predicting that Stan Collymore will be ditched by Liverpool in the summer, their story supporting the Mail on Sunday's claim that Roy Evans imposed a pounds 20,000 fine on the striker for missing training last week. Nottingham Forest, with pounds 16m to spend, seem to have any number of targets. The Mirror predict a pounds 3m move for Celtic's Pierre van Hooijdonk, while the News of the World say there will be a pounds 2.5m bid for Gothenburg's Andreas Andersson. The News of the World give Van Hooijdonk a mention, too, along with Derby's Tommy Johnson and Carlton Palmer of Leeds, not to mention a pounds 6m triple swoop for Norwich's Darren Eadie, Keith O'Neill and Andy Johnson. The People say Forest have had a move for Wimbledon's Dean Holdsworth turned down but are close to landing old boy Des Walker from Sheffield Wednesday.

Missing person

Salvatore Schillaci (Jubilo Iwata)

Italy's hero of the 1990 World Cup consigned himself to lucrative obscurity with his move to Japan in 1994. A new season started on Saturday and the Sicilian, now 33, says this year will be his last in the J.League. After that he will fulfil a lifetime's dream by joining his home town club, Palermo, who are currently 16th in Italy's Serie B.

Watch out for...

Andy Johnson (Norwich)

The Premiership beckons for a midfielder renowned for surging runs in support of his forwards. Martin O'Neill has reportedly tabled a pounds 1.5m bid for the 22-year-old, but faces competition from Nottingham Forest.

NOISES OFF...

I'm not taking anything away from Sunderland but the spark wasn't there for us. There's a price to pay for playing these big games - we looked knackered."

Alex Ferguson, seeking to explain how Manchester United crashed to earth.

"I still think the championship is very difficult for us. I was surprised Manchester United lost today but they still have a game in hand and are due to finish the season with two home games."

Arsene Wenger, playing down Arsenal's renewed hopes.

"From the outside, it might have appeared that we looked down and dispirited after the Spurs game, but the lads here have always had a good spirit and it showed today."

Sunderland's delighted Peter Reid.

"I'm still not counting any chickens. We've got 37 points and I think 42 will be enough, but I will be happy when we finally cross the finishing line in terms of the points we need."

Martin O'Neill, refusing to accept that 10th-placed Leicester are yet certain to stay in the Premiership.

"We are facing a battle to stay up now. Hopefully, I will get one or two players in. We need them because we are getting down to the bare bones."

Nottingham Forest general manager Dave Bassett.

"The security was appaling. This is a very sad day for Brighton and it could be the death knell for them. We simply can't condone what the Brighton fans did and we will protest."

Leyton Orient chairman Barry Hearn after seeing his players attacked in a pitch invasion at the Goldstone Ground.

"How can you ask a question like that at this stage when it's hypothetical - it's an absurd question."

Fabrizio Ravanelli, asked whether he would stay if Middlesbrough are relegated.

"After working with David Seaman at Arsenal for six years I feel I am in a good position to judge. Nigel's not as good as David, but he should be in the England squad."

George Graham, advertising the credentials of Leeds goalkeeper Nigel Martyn.

Good boys

THE PREMIERSHIP'S

LEADING SCORERS

Fabrizio Ravanelli

(Middlesbrough)

Premiership 13; FA Cup 4

Coca-Cola Cup 8.

Ian Wright

(Arsenal)

Premiership 18;

Coca-Cola Cup 5; Europe 2.

Alan Shearer

(Newcastle)

Premiership 20; FA Cup 1;

Coca-Cola Cup 1; Europe 1.

Robbie Fowler

(Liverpool)

Premiership 13; FA Cup 1;

Coca-Cola Cup 5; Europe 4.

25

25

23

23

Manchester United's defeat of Porto has been hailed as a fine performance. To some, however, the night among nights for United in Europe remains their extraordinary victory over Benfica in Lisbon 31 years ago yesterday.

As last week, the occasion was a European Cup quarter-final. The difference was that this was a second-leg tie and United, 3-2 up from the first leg, looked decidedly vulnerable.

Matt Busby, expecting a fierce onslaught from the home side, issued his players with strict orders: contain the Portuguese for the first quarter of the match, and only then attack.

The words were wasted on George Best. United's brilliant 19-year-old had no intention at all of mooching around for 25 minutes as Benfica monopolised the ball. His job was to score goals, and the sooner the better.

What followed was a mesmeric display by the impish Irishman, who stunned the home crowd and effectively killed the game with two goals in the first 12 minutes, the second a brilliant solo run.

It was the cue for United to produce an exhibition. Further goals from John Connolly, Paddy Crerand and Bobby Charlton turned the contest into a 5-1 romp.

Eventually, United even had the Benfica fans applauding. Best was christened "El Beatle" and left the field pursued by a Portuguese fan brandishing a knife - seeking not vengeance but a lock of his hair.

THE SEASON'S RED AND YELLOW CARDS

1 Leeds

Three more cautions on Saturday, including Ian Harte's second in two games.

2 Arsenal

Three more yellow cards against Nottingham Forest.

3 Middlesbrough

On their best behaviour against Derby in midweek.

4 Chelsea

Scott Minto's midweek booking was his third in five games.

70

67

58

58

1

4

3

1

FA CUP TEAM OF THE WEEK

ANDY MARRIOTT

Wrexham

DAN PETRESCU

Chelsea

NIGEL PEARSON

Middlesbrough

FRANK LEBOEUF

Chelsea

ALAN KIMBLE

Wimbledon

CHRIS BEAUMONT

Chesterfield

DENNIS WISE

Chelsea

JUNINHO

Middlesbrough

ROBBIE EARLE

Wimbledon

FABRIZIO RAVANELLI

Middlesbrough

MARK HUGHES

Chelsea

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