United hope to celebrate City success

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The Independent Online
Occasions when the followers of Manchester United actively hope for a Manchester City victory come around less frequently than Boxing Day. One such moment may arrive today, and the sentiments have nothing to do with the season of goodwill.

While United visit Chelsea in the first of two unseasonally long hauls - they also go to Southampton on New Year's Eve - City tackle Blackburn Rovers at Maine Road. Blackburn hold a two-point advantage over the champions; hence a temporary suspension of hostilities by Manchester's red army.

Gavin Peacock scored the only goal each time as Chelsea completed a Premiership double over the eventual Double-winners last season. He also rattled Peter Schmeichel's bar in the FA Cup final, and will therefore command United's respect.

For the first time this season, Hoddle will be choosing Peacock's partner from a full complement of strikers. John Spencer returned unscathed from Scotland duty last weekend, and Mark Stein is approaching match fitness.

Stein, whose career in west London finally took off with a flurry of goals last Christmas, has made only one substitute appearance this term because of injury. "Mark still looks a bit rusty," Hoddle admitted, "but the ankle's holding up very well."

Hoddle was one of arguably only two rivals, with Ron Atkinson, to outsmart Alex Ferguson tactically last season. Chelsea's player-manager will again be looking for a balance between exploiting the mobility of his own forwards and denying United the widthon which they thrive. Reassuringly for Blackburn, the Stamford Bridge team are beginning to need points, having won only two of the last 11 League games.

Rovers must be wondering which City awaits them: the craven bunch who capitulated 3-0 at West Ham nine days ago, or the fighting unit who went on to win 2-0 at Newcastle and reach the last eight of the Coca-Cola Cup. Living up to their enigmatic traditions, City gained their success with an emasculated side. Brian Horton now has to decide whether to change a winning team by restoring the likes of Niall Quinn.

City's defenders will be focused on Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton; their fans on Horton's latest German import. Maurizio Gaudino is a colourful character, with a chequered past, yet whether he is Moss Side's answer to Eric Cantona or merely the new Steffen Karl remains to be seen.

Notwithstanding the fixtures involving the top two, no team needs a victory more than Arsenal or Aston Villa, who meet at Highbury. George Graham's problems over the "bung" allegations seemed to undermine his players against Leeds last Saturday. Indeed,

some supporters argue Highbury would benefit from a change whatever the outcome of the case.

For his part, Brian Little is acutely aware that, having become public enemy No 1 in Leicester, his fund of goodwill in Birmingham is also finite. He has not affected the instant improvement produced by Gerry Francis and Joe Royle at Tottenham and Everton, being without a win in five attempts. Ian Taylor, the £1m midfielder from Sheffield Wednesday, may not be his only signing before the year ends.

Little's successor at Leicester, Mark McGhee, continues his baptism of fire this morning, Liverpool following Blackburn's trail to Filbert Street in search of their first win in six. At nearby Coventry, it may be instructive to compare Dion Dublin, whose£2m fee raised eyebrows when he moved from Old Trafford, with Nottingham Forest's Stan Collymore, who caused similar dismay on earning Southend £2.3m but is now rated in the £6m bracket.

Dublin - who actually has the better scoring ratio this season with 10 goals in 14 games - faces a late test on a groin strain.

The Newcastle players Kevin Keegan dismissed as "brain dead" after the defeat by City have a chance of redemption before a full house at Leeds.

Peter Beardsley and Robert Lee have an outside chance of returning, while Paul Bracewell is set to start for the first time since April. Gary McAllister, 30 yesterday, is back for the hosts.

Several clubs will be ringing in the new a week early, with Guy Whittingham, who joined Wednesday in part-exchange for Taylor, also making his debut against Everton. The former soldier might have wished for an easier start - Everton are something of a bogy team for Wednesday and have seven successive clean sheets to their name.

Gordon Cowans makes his bow, aged 36, in the old gold of Wolves at Oldham following a £20,000 transfer from Derby. Graham Taylor's team, six points adrift of Bryan Robson's Middlesbrough at the First Division summit, are likely to have a makeshift look, with Steve Bull among eight struggling to shake off injuries.

Birmingham, who expect a crowd of 22,000 for the First Division fixture with Cambridge, may have two debutants: Ricky Otto, Barry Fry's dreadlocked £800,000 winger from Southend, and David Howell, a coach of Cowans' vintage, filling in at the back.