Title race heads for final furlong

Guy Hodgson looks forward to a crucial weekend in the Premiership
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The Independent Online
Championship run-ins put pressure on ability. Some players expand into the challenge, others wither like spring shoots caught by a frost. As Tony Parkes recalls the final days of Blackburn Rovers' successful campaign two seasons ago: "There was fear in some of the players' faces.

"It's not a football problem, at the end it becomes a mental one," Blackburn's caretaker-manager said. "It goes out of the manager's hands. There's not a lot he can do. All right, the more he's won the more experienced he is, the more he can help. But from a footballing point of view it's how strong and brave you are."

Alex Ferguson and Roy Evans will send their players out this weekend hoping that hearts will be brave. Manchester United and Liverpool, the most logical winners of the Premiership this season, both have seven matches to play and, as Parkes points out, skill is not the only ingredient that will decide which team prevails. This weekend could be decisive, but so could any of the next six.

United, three points ahead, have the advantage although their visit to Anfield on 19 April could nullify that. They meet Derby County today while Liverpool, delayed by the Grand National, must wait until tomorrow to confront their bete noires, Coventry City. By then they will probably be further adrift.

"It's a good opportunity to make sure Liverpool are stretched all the time," Ferguson, who could write a thesis on title-induced pressure, said. "If we can keep winning matches then eventually they are going to run out of games. We've got experience of things like this and we're playing well enough to handle it."

United's players are the most experienced in England at handling the stress of the final furlong and Ferguson did not expect to see his players wilt. "I'm not saying they're laughing and joking but they're enjoying it," he said. "They realise this is the sort of football they want. Seven games to go, bang in the race."

His selection problems revolve around David May and Gary Neville, who have ankle injuries, while Liverpool will be without the suspended Mark Wright, which might allow Phil Babb to play against his old club.

Traditionally players mouth platitudes on the lines of "I don't want them to be relegated" and then try their socks off to ensure they are, yet Babb, mindful of Liverpool's need for points, hardly conformed to type. "You feel sorry for any team that goes down," he said, "but I wouldn't feel any more for Coventry than I would Southampton. Although some of the staff are still there, it's not really the same team is it? Most of the players I was with have gone."

Coventry took four points off Liverpool last season and would probably be happy with one tomorrow although similar results have hardly helped fellow strugglers Nottingham Forest. "I'd rather have won one and lost one," their general manager, Dave Bassett, said after two successive draws last month, since when they have taken the sequence to four.

They are third from bottom and have played more games than most of the other clubs around them, including Southampton, their opponents at the City Ground today. "It's crunch time because draws aren't good enough," Dean Saunders, whose partnership with pounds 4.5m Pierre van Hooijdonk has yet to realise a goal in four starts, said. "We keep saying `we've got to start winning' and that time has arrived."

Southampton are four points adrift of Forest but have two games in hand. Normally April marks their rapid ascent and with matches against four of the bottom five in their remaining fixtures, their fate is their own hands.

"We know we have the talent," Graeme Souness, their manager, said, "and the players to get us out of trouble. We have to start believing in ourselves and stop letting in sloppy goals." As ever, much will revolve around Matthew Le Tissier, who is likely to play after recovering from a foot injury that forced his withdrawal from England's squad last week.

Souness has looked a weary man in recent weeks, trying to elevate a team who seem to have a permanent place among the dregs, but for one manager today will be an uplifting occasion no matter the result. Dave Watson begins his spell as caretaker player-manager at Everton, with seven games to show his worthiness to be considered on a permanent basis.

He has started in a decisive manner, recalling Paul Rideout from China where he was about to join Huan Dao Vanguards. "More than likely I'll have four kids under the age of 20 on the bench at Aston Villa," he said. "In those circumstances we cannot be without someone of Paul's quality and experience."

On the same theme, Watson will recall the veteran goalkeeper Neville Southall.