United use Prunier to help cut the lead

Phil Shaw looks forward to the weekend's football action
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The Independent Online
The holly and the rivalry of the Christmas programme have given way to days when minus 20 refers to a temperature rather than Bolton's goal difference. For all that, the festive spirit promises to prevail at Old Trafford today.

After Manchester United's victory in Wednesday's Premiership summit meeting, Kevin Keegan described his Newcastle team as a circus without lions. By tonight, the top of the table could be more like a pantomime as Geordie voices bellow: "Behind you!"

United might have gone into the visit of Queen's Park Rangers 13 points adrift. They could close the gap to four, Newcastle's match at West Ham having fallen foul of the weather.

With four centre-backs indisposed, the United manager, Alex Ferguson, has called up the French international William Prunier. A former Auxerre and Marseille player, like Eric Cantona, the 28-year-old Prunier has made only one reserve appearance during his trial from Bordeaux, but has the height to combat Mark Hateley as the Queen's Park Rangers striker strives for his first English league goal in 11 and a half years.

Prunier's availability also means that Roy Keane, United's most imposing performer of late, need not revert to defence. QPR shattered United with a 4-1 away win almost four years ago to the day but, unless they exploit the lack of familiarity which may undermine the home back four, hopes of a repeat look like hoop dreams.

Tottenham - who receive Manchester United on New Year's Day - may have emerged as Newcastle's closest challengers by the start of next week. "Resilient" is a word not normally associated with London fancy dans, yet Spurs take the Premiership's only unbeaten away record to Blackburn, those northern softies who have still to win on their travels.

Something may have to give today. Only Newcastle, with a 100 per cent record, are stronger at home than the champions. Moreover, Alan Shearer is menacingly poised on 99 Premiership goals for Blackburn, having scored in every match at Ewood Park this season.

Joe Kinnear, whose judgement is under particular scrutiny in the Republic of Ireland, must decide whether to include Vinnie Jones in Wimbledon's line-up at Arsenal. Ominously for the tattooed trundler, the club refused to exonerate him over his dismissal for pole- axing Ruud Gullit.

With all the hot air emanating from Jones this week, perhaps he could be loaned to one of the clubs unable to beat the freeze. Everton have no such difficulties, though they do have the problem of rehabilitating their own angry young man. Duncan Ferguson's comeback continues on the bench, and Tony Yeboah may also have a watching brief for visiting Leeds if he returns from Ghana's game in Egypt in time.

The sight of Leeds' Tomas Brolin - born and bred inside the Arctic Circle - wearing gloves at Bolton was a measure of how cold it is. Today, Burnden Park stages a meeting of the division's bottom two. It may be premature to talk of six-pointers at the halfway stage of the season, but Bolton risk being cast adrift if they do not beat Coventry, or at least improve on a haul of three points from nine games.

In the pursuit of Derby at the top of the First Division, second-placed Charlton face Southend (sixth) - with the home forward and best-selling author Garry Nelson primed for his 600th senior outing - while Sunderland (third) collide with Birmingham (fourth), a fixture never goalless at Roker Park in 44 starts.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for West Bromwich Albion, beaten 11 times in a row and visiting Barnsley, where they last won in 1947/48. The worst post-war run belongs to neighbouring Walsall, with 15 straight defeats, with the all-time record of 18 set by Darwen more than a century ago.

So desperate are Albion that their manager, avowed purist Alan Buckley, tried to sign a certain Wimbledon midfielder on loan this week. His subsequent sending-off, and the suspension to come, scuppered the deal.