United face the Captain Marvel factor

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An alarming vision has been disturbing Manchester United supporters since it became clear the championship could be decided on the season's final day tomorrow. They see a mud-spattered figure charging into the area, determination dripping from every pore, to head the goal that denies United a third Premiership title in four years.

The figure is Bryan Robson, and the thought of Old Trafford's Captain Marvel turning into Corporal Punishment has been enough to give United supporters anxiety attacks. The Middlesbrough player-manager, too, in all probability, because he is an invidious position.

The chances of Robson taking the field tomorrow are slight - the prospect of becoming a latter-day Denis Law is too awful - but he would probably prefer if the club he is most associated with could win the title almost anywhere else. If Middlesbrough win, he could be denying old friends a prize, lose limply and the mutterings from Newcastle about collusion will begin.

Which is hard on Middlesbrough who have played since Christmas like they could lose to United's youth team, never mind the champions elect. In their last eight League matches at the Riverside, they have won only once and that was against the Premiership's current whipping boys, Sheffield Wednesday.

Given usual circumstances you would expect United to get the win they need, but the conditions are far from normal and they might well be clinging on to a point by tomorrow evening while hoping Newcastle do not get the six goals they need against Tottenham at St James' Park to deny them on goal difference.

"I must have had 80,000 letters from United supporters this season wishing me well," Robson, who still lives in the Manchester area, said. "I wouldn't like to lose them as fans but we have 27,000 season tickets to try to entertain. I can assure everyone my players will be determined to do their best."

Words that will soothe a few battered souls on Tyneside who are enlarging straws to the size of planks as they clutch for something to forget they once had a 12-point lead. "I think the way we performed showed we have the ability to win the title," Kevin Keegan, their manager, said after Thursday's 1-1 draw against Nottingham Forest virtually buried their hopes, "but it's not how we play now, it's how the table looks."

Little has gone right for Newcastle in their run-in and even the choice of opponent tomorrow could be better as Tottenham require a win to help their Uefa Cup aspirations. A defeat for both championship contenders, and an anti-climactic conclusion, is not out of the question.

When it comes to disappointing finishes, however, Sheffield Wednesday are becoming masters. Six years ago they appeared on the blind side of everyone and managed to snatch relegation on the line and this year they are making a pretty fine job a staging a repeat, matching their 1990 run of four points in six matches going into their final game.

If they lose tomorrow and Southampton, Coventry and Manchester City win, Wednesday are relegated. "I've had sleepless nights," David Pleat, their manager, said. "We have to assume that the other teams below us will win. We have to believe that, otherwise our attitude may be wrong. We're ready for the weekend of decision."

So are Manchester City, whose weekend could be made complete by neighbours United winning the championship while they are relegated. They face Liverpool at Maine Road knowing they have to do better than their relegation rivals because goal difference could condemn them.

The City manager, Alan Ball, is looking for a similar performance to the 1-0 win at Aston Villa last weekend. "I asked them to sweat blood that day and they did," he said. "If we do the same again we will have no fears against Liverpool." A repeat of the victory last Easter that eased their relegation problems last season would do nicely.

Should City prevail, fans of Southampton could be watching the last performance for the club by Matt Le Tissier, who has said he will leave if they are relegated. They face Wimbledon, who are underdogs with sharp teeth but more supine when it comes to teams of level rank.

Coventry showed that last week when they won 2-0 at Selhurst Park. If the Sky Blues could have chosen their opponents tomorrow they would probably have plumped for Leeds, who have had six successive defeats - their worst run since 1948 - and have collected 33 out of their last 102 points.

This in the ninth time in the 29 seasons Coventry have been in the top flight that their survival has depended on the final match and every time they have been successful. The one black omen is their manager, Ron Atkinson, who presided over Sheffield Wednesday's fall in 1990.

As an interesting footnote to Wednesday's black day, Middlesbrough saved themselves from relegation to the old Third Division with a 4-1 victory on their old ground, Ayresome Park. Their opponents on that occasion were Newcastle.

The championship's 10 vital games, page 26

United's seats of yearning, page 8

Fan's early release, page 4