Villa are looking up not down

It is a crucial weekend at both ends of the table, writes Trevor Haylett
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The Independent Online
England's failure to arrange a fixture on Wednesday week might prove to be of benefit to Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United this three-day weekend, but for two managers fighting the prospect of relegation at the other end of the Premiership table, there is the chance that a busy week of international football might provide them with a vital survival dividend.

Aston Villa have reason to believe that their efforts to effect an Endsleigh escape will have been boosted by events in Dsseldorf and Dublin. Dean Saunders and Steve Staunton produced important goals for Wales and the Republic of Ireland, which will have done them a power of good, even if it drew an ironic response from their manager, Brian Little.

Villa need a repeat performance from their international players - Andy Townsend and Paul McGrath were also outstanding for the Republic - at Leeds today if a crisis is not to become a catastrophe.

Saunders, who has now scored in successive matches for Wales, has not found the net for his club in six games; indeed, the only time Villa have troubled the statisticians in their previous seven outings was through an Ipswich own goal.

With games to follow next week against Manchester City and Liverpool, Little's team will struggle to assure themselves of another dip into the Premiership trough next season before the potentially critical final game at Norwich if they return empty-handed from Elland Road. Is it the rattling of the relegation gates or the jangling of Ron Atkinson's jewellery that has disturbed Doug Ellis's sleep this past fortnight?

Ray Houghton was another of Jack Charlton's ageing crew to reassert himself at Lansdowne Road in a manner that had looked beyond him earlier in the season. Having left Villa's sinking ship, he is now adding his experience to Crystal Palace's relegation fight.

Alan Smith, the Palace manager, must be hoping both that Houghton has something left in the tank for this afternoon's visit of Nottingham Forest, and that Iain Dowie did not exhaust his quota of goals for the week with Northern Ireland's winner in Latvia.

By most experts' reckoning, Norwich have already severed their lifeline; their final three games appear to be just as inhibiting as their fall from grace has been spectacular. Today they have to try to pocket the reds of Anfield, and then follow that with victories at Leeds and at home to Villa if they are not to be left requiring outrageous snookers.

Supporters are threatening a demonstration against the boardroom's selling policies, while Gary Megson looks for his first goal and first points since taking over as manager from John Deehan. A draw, however, would not be sufficient today.

Issues at both ends of the table are conveniently joined tomorrow at Upton Park, where West Ham are the latest to stand in the way of the title prize that now looks to be going to Blackburn for safekeeping. United's break from action goes the full two weeks to Monday and to Highfield Road, where Coventry still require points to guarantee their own safety.

By 10pm on Monday, United could be 11 points adrift and resigned to second place. Eric Cantona's prized signature on a new contract yesterday was not the only reason why, in terms of League football, the men of Manchester are already looking towards next season.

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