United ready to climb if Blackburn crack

Phil Shaw considers the crucial games in the weekend's football
A Manchester derby sans Eric Cantona is one thing. Without controversy, however, it would be a contradiction in terms. Yet after another image- tarnishing week for English football, events at Ewood Park are likely to be scrutinised as closely as those at Maine Road.

By the time Blackburn tackle Sheffield Wednesday tomorrow, Manchester United may be back on the Premiership summit by virtue of beating City. Whatever position Kenny Dalglish's team start in - and it is only 10 days since they missed a chance to go seven points clear of the champions - theirs will be a test of temperament.

During a run of five games in which they have beaten only Ipswich, Blackburn have revealed a brattish bent. England's Alan Shearer and Graeme Le Saux, who might be expected to cope better with adversity, have taken to berating the officials in a manner Paul Ince reputedly had under copyright.

Ince, displaying characteristic tact and timing, was reported yesterday as doubting Blackburn's mental mettle. "Has Kenny got the bottle?" ran the headline, to which Dalglish retorted: "We don't feel any pressure so whatever he says won't affect us. I read the same script last year, but don't forget it took them 27 years to win the title.''

Which shows, like Blackburn's battle with Leeds, that it takes two to tangle. Both the atmosphere on the pitch and the outcome will depend in part on Wednesday's reaction - backlash or brooding - to their FA Cup exit on penalties at Wolves; not many teams go 3-0 up after extra time and still manage to lose.

Blackburn have taken 11 points from five meetings since winning promotion. Bobby Mimms is the only player involved from their starting line-up the last time they lost a League fixture to Wednesday, five years ago.

Manchester City have to look back further for blue remembered thrills at the Reds' expense. That win, in 1989, did more for the T-shirt trade than for Mel Machin's tenure - "Mel's Marvels 5 Fergie's Wallet 1" was a big earner - or the City careers of scorers Oldfield, Morley, Hinchcliffe and Bishop. Brian Horton, for whom taking each game as it comes is no mere clich, would settle for a more modest margin.

The match could see the first appearance together of Andy Cole and Mark Hughes, the Welshman being fit and back in favour after his own argument with a set of studs was quickly overshadowed by another. Blackburn, it seems, are not the only beneficiaries of the fact that Cantona is now kicking his heels in Antigua (as opposed to kicking heels at Selhurst Park).

The meeting of Newcastle and Nottingham Forest looks an enticing six- pointer in the struggle for European places. The Tyneside crowd, still to be convinced that the Cole hole has ben filled, will monitor Stan Collymore's performance with interest.

Sadly, after Wednesday's violence, there may be as much concern for a trouble-free derby at Stamford Bridge as interest in the result of the match with Tottenham. Chelsea, without a Premiership win since October, could do without such distractions. Meanwhile, Anthony Yeboah is finally in line for a full Leeds debut against Ipswich, the Ghanaian's agitation over the wait having apparently been matched by the club's over his weight.

Bottom-placed Leicester, whose visit to Arsenal is something of a no- win situation for George Graham, may already be doomed. The position will also look bleak for Coventry, and perhaps for Phil Neal, if an 11-game run without a win continues at Crystal Palace.

Either Tranmere or Middlesbrough could replace Bolton on top of the First Division by winning at Barnsley and Oldham respectively. Bryan Robson, making his first start for Boro this year on his return to Greater Manchester, will be forgiven a twinge of regret that he is not fighting United's corner today.

Maine Road and St James' Park are not, incidentally, the only sold-out venues. Gresty Road, Crewe, should be full to its 6,700 capacity for the Alex's promotion tussle with the Second Division leaders, Birmingham.

Glenn Moore,

Football Diary, page 46