United hoping for a City favour

Guy Hodgson looks forward to a tasty selection of weekend football
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The Independent Online
It is not something that Manchester City like to dwell on, but a win over Newcastle United today will conform to a pattern. They might have only an academic interest in the championship each season, but they tend to give their neighbours, United, a helping hand.

Last season City played so much havoc with Blackburn's nerves by winning at Ewood Park in April that Rovers only just staggered over the line a nose ahead of United. In previous years, they slowed Aston Villa and Leeds, and a similar upset today would plant doubts in leaders, Newcastle.

Defeat by West Ham on Wednesday, coupled with Manchester United's win over Everton, has left a healthy but dwindling gap of six points that would be halved again if results this weekend conspire against them. Newcastle, whose run-in is far from comfortable, deny nerves - but then they would say that, wouldn't they?

"Nothing's changed," Peter Beardsley, their England striker, said. "We have a good lead but we need to start winning again against Manchester City."

On that Manchester United's manager, Alex Ferguson, whose side face Bolton tomorrow, chose to differ. "Wednesday changed things a little," he said. "I know City will be trying like bears, not so much for our sake as for their own. It's funny but they seem to make a habit of doing us a favour in important games."

City will give a debut to Scott Hiley, a full-back on loan from Birmingham City, while David Ginola will return from suspension for Newcastle to form a forward line that will also include Les Ferdinand, Faustino Asprilla and Peter Beardsley. "I don't care who they play," Alan Ball, the City manager said, "we'll give them a game.

"I'm not worried that we might do United a favour. That's one of the problems for City supporters, they are paranoid about Manchester United. The only people we are interested in doing favours for are ourselves."

United could be without Eric Cantona and Lee Sharpe at Burnden Park. Cantona has a thigh injury and is regarded as the greater doubt while Sharpe has a back strain. Paul Scholes and David Beckham are the likely replacements.

Bryan Robson, a rock around whom Ferguson built two championships, has more severe problems. The Middlesbrough player-manager is at the other end of the table after a spectacular decline that will resemble free-fall if they record their ninth successive Premiership defeat at fellow strugglers Coventry.

"I'm not even thinking about relegation," Robson declared, but the notion has clearly crossed the mind of his players, judging by their edginess against Bolton last week. To make things harder, Coventry will field their new signings, Eoin Jess and Liam Daish.

Relegation worries still hang over Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton and Wimbledon, with all three sides facing difficult games. Wednesday's manager, David Pleat, returns to a former club, Tottenham, who will have the Hillsborough evacuee Andy Sinton on the left flank, while Southampton, hopeful that Mark Walters will be fit, face Chelsea. Wimbledon, meanwhile, play Aston Villa hoping that the visitors' concentration on League matters will have been diffused by a place at Wembley.

If it is goals you want, however, the place to be should be Ewood Park, where the Premiership's leading scorer, Blackburn's Alan Shearer, confronts the Liverpool duo of Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore.