United seek to recover their rhythm

Phil Shaw looks at the weekend's Premiership and Endsleigh fixtures
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The Independent Online
Wearing his former Scotland supremo's tam, Alex Ferguson doubtless derived satisfaction from one midweek result. As manager of Manchester United, who visit Everton today seeking to avenge their FA Cup final defeat, he has cause to curse the way international matches disrupt the Premiership programme.

After all their summer chagrin, United no sooner reeled off three victories in six days than their players began dispersing around Europe. Now, fully 12 days after their last game, Ferguson must effectively start the season again, with Goodison Park hardly the ideal venue for a young side seeking to slip back into a rhythm.

Following the equivalent hiatus a year ago, an unbeaten United stumbled to a rare loss at Leeds. This afternoon's game may, moreover, have an undercurrent of hostility following the protracted wrangling over Andrei Kanchelskis's pounds 5m move to Merseyside.

Joe Royle and his opposite number still form a mutual admiration society, at least publicly. Evertonians might be less tolerant. The arrival of Kanchelskis has coincided with an upturn in fortunes, yet the manager felt the need yesterday to appeal for common sense: "Let's not inflame something that's not really a problem."

United fly to Russia tonight in some trepidation over what awaits them in Volgograd. No such distractions for Newcastle, the Premiership's only 100 per cent side, whose despair at failing to qualify for the Uefa Cup was tempered by such draws. Today they are as close to Europe as they will get - Southampton - though the accents of those plotting to check their surge, Dave Merrington and Lawrie McMenemy, are totally Tyneside.

The break was probably a blessing for Blackburn, who needed to regroup after three defeats. Ray Harford's bid for Jason McAteer and Alan Stubbs was hardly a vote of confidence, however, and a club who supposedly bought success are finding not everyone has his price. Aston Villa, enjoying their best start in 15 years, should provide a searching test of the champions' mental mettle before their European Cup debut. While McAteer travels with Liverpool, who face Wimbledon, Roy Evans is not guaranteeing his pounds 4.5m midfielder a place.

London's top match pits tottering Tottenham, reinforced by Darren Anderton, against second-placed Leeds. The sole source of smugness among Spurs fans has been Dennis Bergkamp's inability to score for Arsenal or, indeed, for the Netherlands against Belarus. Bruce Rioch's pounds 7.5m man goes into tomorrow's match at Manchester City urged by a former Dutch international, Wim van Hanegem, to start "kicking ass" and show some "passion and aggression".

City, the bottom club, will no doubt offer plenty of the latter, but they will not have Gerry Creaney, Portsmouth's former Celtic striker in their ranks, the part-exchange for Paul Walsh having hit a hitch yesterday.

At the Endsleigh League summit, Millwall's credentials should receive a stern examination by Barnsley, on the rebound from a 5-0 blip at home to Birmingham. Even defeat by Genoa in the interim is unlikely to puncture the bubble of optimism surrounding Barry Fry's side, who will again be exhorted to "run yer wotsits off" to prevent Crystal Palace gaining a fourth consecutive win at St Andrews.

Despite that confrontation, the First Division's biggest crowd will almost certainly be at Molineux. Wolves' mediocre start has left them anticipating "only" 24,000 to see Grimsby, the club that gave the world Graham Taylor.