The height of domestic bliss

Ian Ridley examines the mass appeal of a passion play with sub- plots aplenty; Battle for the title: Home fires burn for Premiership leaders as Ferguson's men put the risk-takers to the ultimate test
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EUROPEAN football returns after its winter hibernation this week with several encounters to coax the sleep from the eyes - Bayern Munich v Nottingham Forest and Real Madrid v Juventus are chief among them. Home thoughts, however, will turn from abroad towards two games with narrower horizons but wider appeal.

Talk of super leagues and Euro riches may occupy governing bodies and club chairmen but Liverpool against Aston Villa and Newcastle versus Manchester United - Starter Sunday followed by Maincourse Monday - will dominate domestic conversation. No matter how appealing meetings with Milan or Madrid might be, the fan will always want the English championship retained. So will the players. In Italy, Spain and Germany they probably feel the same, and administrators ignore at their peril the pull of home. That will be plain this afternoon and tomorrow evening.

Liverpool will see their match against Villa, who have the comfort of two cup competitions to soothe any league disappointments, as an opportunity to add to the stress Newcastle may be feeling at the erosion of what was once a 12-point lead. Victory would take them to within six points, and the leaders still have to go to Anfield.

Should United win at St James' Park, they will be only one behind, though Newcastle will still have a game in hand. It is not so much the result tomorrow, however, as the reaction of the teams to it that will determine the destination of the title. After all, Blackburn lost to United twice last season but held on for the prize. The previous year, United lost at Ewood Park late in the season but staved off Rovers' challenge.

The evidence favours United, who have won five consecutive Premiership matches, the last by a resounding 6-0 at Bolton. It now seems a long time since their 3-1 defeat at Villa Park on the opening day of the season, when the replacement of Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis with young players looked certain to lead to a season of transition.

We of little faith. Roy Keane has replaced the drive of Ince, Nicky Butt alongside has matured swiftly in unhurried if sometimes unambitious support. Paul Scholes, when given the opportunity, has demonstrated a sharp eye for goal and David Beckham, if not possessing the dash of Kanchelskis, has proved a perceptive passer and powerful finisher. Ryan Giggs, it seems, has come of age.

The only problems for the vindicated Alex Ferguson appear to involve selection. Will he pick Lee Sharpe, if he has recovered from a back injury, for Beckham, though the latter does give a better balance? Which Neville brother, Gary or Philip, in defence?

Kevin Keegan's concerns seem more pressing. Does he replace Pavel Srnicek, after five goals conceded in two matches, with the fit-again Shaka Hislop? Who to drop, with Robert Lee expected to have recovered from a groin injury? The natural assumption is Lee Clark, who may become marginalised by the signing of David Batty, unavailable because of suspension.

In addition, since the arrival of Faustino Asprilla, Les Ferdinand has seemed less sure of himself, sometimes duplicating the Colombian's runs. It may be that the FA do Newcastle an indirect favour by suspending Asprilla for his tangles with Keith Curle at Maine Road last week, with Keith Gillespie then likely to return to the right flank and Peter Beardsley moving up again in support of Ferdinand.

Then there is the question of three central defenders, a system the Newcastle players give every sign of disliking after defeat at Arsenal in the Coca- Cola Cup, at West Ham and the scrambled draw at Manchester City.

"I get the feeling it could be a good shape, but it hasn't worked for us yet," Keegan admitted. "The one thing that comes out of the system is that it allows Philippe Albert to get out and express himself." For that reason, Keegan would probably like to persevere but, if not, the painful decision about which of Darren Peacock, Steve Howey or Albert to drop may be eased. Peacock - despite the criticism of others, Keegan's dependable favourite - has a minor ankle injury.

Such doubts lead the Blackburn Rovers full-back Graeme Le Saux, who has been both pursuer and pursued in the title races, to favour Manchester United. "I think United will be looking forward to it while Newcastle will be apprehensive," he said. "It's strange. I feel for Newcastle, who are in the position we were in last season but when I was in it, I told myself: 'Don't let the pressure spoil your chances.'

"United have been through all this before and are probably the more solid team. Newcastle are quite a risk-taking team with some luxury players. They like to express themselves. The tendency in a tense situation is to take fewer risks and if Newcastle do that, they may lose what got them where they are."

Probably not, however, at St James' Park. Newcastle have won all 13 of their home league matches and it remains a powerful factor in the championship equation. Eighteen more points are likely to be enough for the title and Newcastle have six home matches left.

While United may have the edge in experience, notably stemming from Ferguson and his ability to cajole his own team while kidding the other with doubt-inducing words, Newcastle also have in Albert, Peter Beardsley and David Ginola players who have won championships.

United also have reasons to be apprehensive. All at Old Trafford may loyally point out how well Andy Cole is linking, how his game is developing but his touch and timing, to Eric Cantona's clear displeasure at times, is still wanting, and his voracity for goals since leaving Newcastle is diminished. Cantona's effect on impressionable young team-mates as a figure of respect may indeed be invaluable but he does not convince as the potent player he was before the Selhurst Park incident.

United, having lived it, will be aware that recent history is with the team establishing a points lead. It is a question of retaining nerve - which this column does in reaffirming its pre-season belief that Newcastle will be champions - and trusting in the expensive talent Keegan has assembled.

It will be a fascinating evening, with Asprilla's home debut, Cole's return and Cantona v Ginola teasing sub-plots to the main drama. At the end, Manchester United might well have become the first team to take points away from St James', but not the three they need.

A point for Newcastle and, as the season springs towards its conclusion, they will almost be home. Home comfort in more ways than one.