United can thrive without Cantona

The Premiership title race has a new look. Guy Hodgson considers the weekend action
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False trails abound at this time of the year but it was possible to perceive a landmark in the Premiership on Wednesday night. When the title race seemed to be heading for a cavalry charge for the line, wins by Manchester United and Liverpool have created the first fissure between the top and the rest. The familiar two-horse race is in prospect.

As a consequence, when third-placed Arsenal meet sixth-placed Wimbledon tomorrow, they could be inflicting damage on each other knowing they are substantially behind the top two. United are five points ahead of the Gunners while Liverpool are only a point behind, and both the leaders have a game in hand.

On paper the team more likely to be sitting on top of this Premiership cushion tonight are Liverpool, who have a difficult but not insurmountable home match against Blackburn, while United travel to Chelsea, the last side to beat them in the League. That was 14 matches ago.

Liverpool are likely to stick with the team that demolished Leeds on Wednesday but, if they are unchanged in personnel, there seems to be a renewed sense of purpose since they squandered a two-goal lead against Chelsea in the FA Cup. "We hadn't been playing well until we met Leeds," Stan Collymore, who has scored in his last four games, said, "but we still have a great chance of winning the title."

Liverpool versus United at Anfield on 19 April looms out of the remaining matches and, if Wednesday changed the mood of the championship race, it also altered opinions about the champions. Last year, matches without Eric Cantona were viewed with trepidation yet, against Arsenal, United produced their most flowing football of the season, with Andy Cole a revelation. Even the Manchester Evening News, which normally places Cantona just a rung below Sir Matt Busby in order of veneration, carried the headline "What now for Eric?"

As Alex Ferguson, the United manager, pointed out: "Players like Keane, Beckham, Butt, and Giggs are maturing and so the importance of Eric is not the same as when we lost the League when he was suspended."

Cantona is banned again today although Peter Schmeichel, who has a badly bruised foot as a result of his controversial clash with Ian Wright, is expected to be fit. Chelsea trained with Milan this week although their Italian schooling is unlikely to persuade them to play Gianluca Vialli from the start, even though he scored the winner at Old Trafford in November.

Newcastle are among the pack in danger of being left behind by the top two and, under the circumstances, would prefer a less vigorous test than a North-east derby against Middlesbrough at the Riverside, particularly as Boro are undefeated since 11 January and are beginning to play, according to their manager, Bryan Robson, "like the side I know we can be". Newcastle will be without David Batty, Middlesbrough Emerson, who is also suspended.

Bottom-placed Middlesbrough blow hot and cold while with Southampton the emphasis, as always, is on one player. Matthew Le Tissier returns to club action against Sheffield Wednesday and, if he breathes a huge sigh of relief, who could blame him? Cast as the national scapegoat after England's World Cup defeat by Italy, he returns to his normal, and comfortable, role of saving Saints.

"I was disappointed with the response to what happened in the England game," he said, "but my energies must go into this match. We must win because Southampton's survival in the Premiership is crucial. That's my priority." A difficult task, too, as Wednesday have been beaten only once in their last 19 outings.

Dion Dublin's priority will be to string a collection of appearances together after serving a seven-match suspension. He definitely returns for fifth-from-bottom Coventry against Everton, although his position is something of a mystery. A forward by trade, he was appearing in the back four before successive sending-offs interrupted an on-going debate about his best position.

"I've got an international centre-half and a top-class striker," Gordon Strachan, the Coventry player-manager, said. "The only problem is that they are the same person. It really is a dilemma." With Duncan Ferguson in the opposition line-up, however, the problem is possibly smaller today than normal.

Leicester have few selection dilemmas these days; if you can run, you play. Eleven players are out for the visit of Derby, a match that could carry considerable significance on the relegation issue. By comparison the visitors' worries about Robin van der Laan (chest infection) appear puny.

That is a relegation six-pointer but then the same could be said about Leeds' match against Sunderland, despite their seemingly comfortable mid- table positions. Indeed, whichever team loses today could find themselves fifth from bottom if results go against them.