Weekend guide to the Premiership

UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT
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Blackburn v Derby County

WHILE THIS summer's World Cup cast the spotlight on a wealth of international talent - not to mention the dynamic exploits of Liverpool's Michael Owen - the most expensive English player to change clubs in the last year was at home awaiting the new season.

Kevin Davies (left) may not be as well known as Owen, but his potential persuaded the Blackburn Rovers manager, Roy Hodgson, to pay Southampton pounds 7.25m for his services. What Hodgson has got for his money is a confident but untested 21-year-old, with a steady touch, a willingness to learn, and, above all, a wilful and at times dazzling persistence in attack.

Davies has admitted his decision to move to Ewood was more than influenced by his desire to work with the man who took Switzerland to a World Cup Finals and who managed Internazionale of Italy's Serie A.

"The manager has impressed me by the way he takes time in training to put things right," said Davies, who will make his Blackburn debut against Derby today. "I have a lot of faith in him. If he sees something you haven't done right he comes over and has a word with you.

"He is great with all of us young players. He is showing us the right way to play. And it's not just the things he does on the pitch, it's also off the pitch. Things like eating the right food and the warm-downs - everything is set up to benefit us."

The Sheffield-born striker spent the summer on the treadmill in an effort to get fully fit, after missing the last third of last season due to a series of injuries, but is ready to start today alongside Chris Sutton in the front line.

The pressure on Davies to help Blackburn win a second Premiership title (after 1995's) is likely to be immense, but he does not seem daunted. "We want to win it and the manager wants to win it but we will have to see what happens," he said. "Last year I think there was a dip after Christmas and we are already talking about making sure we concentrate on keeping our form through to the end of the season.

"The manager is making sure we get off to a good start and ensuring we all are fit, which we will be considering the amount of work we have put in."

Two other debutants for Blackburn will be the centre-back Darren Peacock, and the French midfielder, Sebastien Perez. With Tim Flowers suspended, the Australian John Filan will play in goal.

The Argentinian defender, Horacio Carbonari, Derby's record signing, will make his debut today in a cosmopolitan side that will also include the leggy Costa Rican striker, Paulo Wanchope (right). The Rams' other summer signing (apart from Carbonari) the ex-Hamburg defender, Stefan Schnoor, is also likely to make his debut at Ewood Park. Stefan Eranio and Igor Stimac, who both have minor knee injuries, are Jim Smith's only injury worries and both face late fitness tests.

INJURED: Blackburn: Jimmy Corbett,Tore Pedersen, Marlon Broomes. Derby: None confirmed.

SUSPENDED: Blackburn: Tim Flowers (two matches).Derby: None.

Coventry City v Chelsea

GORDON STRACHAN, the Coventry manager, is looking forward to facing a "Rest of the World IX" when his team meet Chelsea at Highfield Road.

Strachan said: "We are playing a Rest Of The World select - but that is not a criticism. I fully see why clubs buy foreign players. No Premiership club took a player from the Third Division last season and when you go to Peterborough to ask about a kid, Barry Fry wants pounds 2m. You could buy an international striker for that."

Gianluca Vialli, the Chelsea manager, is likely to pair debutant Marcel Desailly, the France centre-back, with Franck Leboeuf, his World Cup final partner.

Pierluigi Casiraghi and Gianfranco Zola are the probable strike force as Brian Laudrup is doubtful with a back injury. Ed de Goey is favourite to be number one goalkeeper after Dmitri Kharine looked shaky in pre-season tests.

Summer signings Paul Hall, Jean-Guy Wallemme and Ian Brightwell could start on the Coventry bench with Strachan likely to remain loyal to the players who helped the club to a mid-table finish last season. Dion Dublin and Darren Huckerby have recovered from injuries, but Philippe Clement, the Belgian World Cup star, is ruled out with a fractured cheekbone.

Chelsea also began at Coventry last season, when a Dion Dublin hat-trick sent them crashing to a 3-2 defeat.

INJURED: Coventry: Philippe Clement. Chelsea: None.

SUSPENDED: Coventry: Jamie Williams (two matches). Chelsea: None.

Everton v Aston Villa

SLAVEN BILIC is the only doubt for the new Everton manager, Walter Smith, as he goes into his first Premiership game. Bilic will have a late fitness test on a groin injury, while Smith faces a test of his own - turning around an Everton side that seriously underperformed last season and flirted with relegation until the end.

"I certainly don't want to go through with the Everton fans what they had to go through last season," Smith said. "We are prepared for a very tough season and we hope that it will lead to a bit more success than Everton have had in the last few seasons." Smith's new signings - Alex Cleland, John Collins, Olivier Dacourt and Marco Materazzi - are all expected to make their debuts. The Scottish striker, John Spencer, is likely to partner Duncan Ferguson up front instead of Mickael Madar.

Dwight Yorke, the subject of recent frenzied transfer speculation about a move to Manchester United, remains a Villain for today at least, spearheading the visitors' attack. He will be joined by Julian Joachim as the duo seek to extend the successful partnership they began at the end of last season. Villa's Stan Collymore is out with a thigh strain, while manager John Gregory reshuffles his three-man central defence. The suspended Ugo Ehiogu is replaced by Simon Grayson, while Gareth Barry and Riccardo Scimeca contest the third central defensive position.

INJURED: Everton: None confirmed. Aston Villa: Stan Collymoore.

SUSPENDED: Everton: Francis Jeffers (four matches). Aston Villa: David Unsworth (one match), Ugo Ehiogu (one match).

Manchester Utd v Leicester

ALEX FERGUSON, the Manchester United manager, can call on all his big names apart from Jesper Blomqvist, who is out with a heel injury. Roy Keane leads the side in a Premiership game for the first time since 27 September, and central defender Jaap Stam, the club's pounds 10.75m buy from PSV Eindhoven, makes his debut in Premiership football.

Frank Sinclair, Leicester's pounds 2m record signing, is likely to start in defence alongside fellow new boy Gerry Taggart, signed on a free transfer from Bolton in the summer.

Martin O'Neill, the Leicester manager, has injury doubts over Muzzy Izzett (ankle) and Ian Marshall, who is struggling with a hamstring problem.

Leicester pulled off a memorable 1-0 defeat of United at Old Trafford last season, Tony Cottee grabbing the winner. The veteran striker said yesterday: "Sure, I've got happy memories of that game and I'll remember it for the rest of my life. But it's history now, there is no point in thinking about that win and then going there again and getting whopped 6-0."

Ryan Giggs is raring to go in this sell-out Old Trafford clash. The hero of Wednesday's 2-0 Champions' League victory over LKS Lodz, said: "I am looking forward to the Leicester game. Nobody enjoys pre-season matches - they just want the real business to start."

INJURED: Manchester United: Jesper Blomqvist. Leicester: None.

SUSPENDED: Manchester United: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (one match).

Leicester: None.

Middlesbrough v Leeds

BRYAN ROBSON expects Middlesbrough to make an impact in their first season back in the Premiership, even though he faces suspension and injury problems for the opening game against Leeds in front of a capacity 35,000 crowd.

"I feel we are better equipped than when we were last in the Premiership," Robson said. "We have more experience and a higher standard of young players. Some of the kids have a great chance to play at the highest level. I don't like to talk about survival. We were relegated the last time because we did not have strength in depth to cope with injuries and good cup runs. We are now looking to be safe as soon as possible and to have a good Cup run as well."

The Italian Marco Branca has a knee injury and Alun Armstrong will be out of action until the new year with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Paul Gascoigne is a doubt through injury, while defender Steve Vickers misses the opening two games, suspended.

Leeds will be without last season's 22-goal leading scorer Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, due to suspension. The new pounds 1.5m striker, Clyde Wijnhard, is likely to start up front with Harry Kewell, and Lee Sharpe could start his first game in 15 months. David Hopkin may also be given a chance after being out of favour at the end of last season. The new pounds 1.6m defender, Danny Granville, could have to make do with a bench place.

INJURED: Middlesbrough: Marco Branca, Alun Armstrong. Leeds: Gary Kelly, Alan Maybury.

SUSPENDED: Middlesbrough: Steve Vickers (two matches). Leeds: Mark Jackson (one match) Gunnar Halle (one match) Jimmy Hasselbaink (one match).

Last Season: No fixture

Newcastle v Charlton

STUART PEARCE, the Newcastle defender, starts his 16th season as a professional determined to win a new contract with the club.

Pearce, the 36-year-old former England captain who last week was lucky to walk away from a serious car accident involving a dustcart, said: "At the end of this season both Newcastle and I have an option on whether I stay. My aim is to make certain they still want me."

Kenny Dalglish, the Newcastle manager, has given up hope of having Stephane Guivarc'h, the French player who totally lost his shooting touch in the World Cup, fit for the game. The pounds 3.5m signing has a twisted ankle.

Newcastle had an excellent pre-season campaign, including a defeat of Juventus, and Dalglish said: "We had a very hard pre-season and got some good results, but what was more important was that the training and the performance we produced in those warm-up games left us in a positive frame of mind."

Nolberto Solano, a pounds 2.5m buy from Boca Juniors, is unlikely to play.

Charlton, back in the top flight for the first time in six years, did have an injury doubt about Clive Mendonca, last season's top scorer. He damaged his back during Alan Curbishley's testimonial against Hearts, but was declared fit yesterday.

INJURED: Newcastle: Stephane Guivarc'h. Charlton: None.

SUSPENDED: Newcastle: David Batty (five matches). Charlton: None.

Sheff Wed v West Ham

HARRY REDKNAPP, the West Ham manager, can't wait for Ian Wright to make his debut at Hillsborough.

The bubbly Wright has set Upton Park buzzing and Redknapp has had to order him not to train on certain days for fear that he might overdo it.

"Ian is so enthusiastic he is like a two-year-old," said Redknapp. "Every single morning he is in here an hour before everyone else. All the lads love him and he wants to join in everything.

"When he scores a goal in training he is so excited that it is rubbing off on the other players, and a few of the quiet lads are coming out of their shells."

Wright, who scored on his debuts for Crystal Palace and Arsenal, his former clubs, will partner Trevor Sinclair in attack as John Hartson is suspended and Paul Kitson injured.

Of the new signings Shaka Hislop will play in goal and Neil Ruddock in the centre of defence. Javier Margas, the pounds 2m Chilean defender, will be on the bench.

Danny Wilson, the Sheffield Wednesday manager, will include striker Andy Booth in the starting line-up after dismissing reports the Owls were ready to offload him to Nottingham Forest as bait in a deal to capture rebel Pierre van Hooijdonk. New signings Wim Jonk and Juan Cobian should play.

INJURED: Sheffield Wednesday: Ian Nolan, Jon Newsome, Goce Sedlosk, Niclas Alexandersson. West Ham: Paul Kitson.

SUSPENDED: Sheffield Wednesday: None. West Ham: John Hartson (one match), Samassi Abou (one match).

Wimbledon v Tottenham

JOE KINNEAR, the Wimbledon manager, starts off with a crisis as Ben Thatcher's suspension stretches his already thin defensive resources. Also missing is Brian McAllister, who will have a scan on a heel he damaged in the friendly against Fulham last week. Otherwise Kinnear has a fully fit squad to chose from.

In contrast, Christian Gross, the Tottenham manager, has the luxury of an almost injury-free squad and takes 18 players to Selhurst Park.

Striker Steffen Iversen, winger Andy Sinton and defender John Scales are the only senior players ruled out by injuries - a far cry from the past two seasons which Spurs began with a string of top players on the casualty list.

Les Ferdinand and Chris Armstrong will be the front-line pair in a 4- 4-2 line-up and both Darren Anderton and David Ginola look certain starters in midfield, but Gross then faces a choice between Ruel Fox, Nicola Berti, Allan Nielsen and Moussa Saib for the two other positions.

Ramon Vega, Sol Campbell and Colin Calderwood are all competing for two central defensive spots, and Paolo Tramezzani, the pounds 1.5m Italian signing makes his debut at left-back.

INJURED: Wimbledon: Brian McAllister. Tottenham: Steffen Iversen, Andy Sinton, John Scales.

SUSPENDED: Wimbledon: Ben Thatcher (four matches). Tottenham: None.

MONDAY'S TELEVISED MATCH (8.0)

Last Season: No fixture

Arsenal v Nott'm Forest

ARSeNE WENGER'S Double-winners begin their Premiership title defence in a `first of its kind' encounter on Monday. It will be the only occasion since the start of the Premier League in 1992 that the reigning champions of the top flight have met the winners of the First Division in the first fixture of the following season.

Wenger has one of the safest jobs in the Premiership, and if last Sunday's 3-0 Charity Shield win is anything to go by (it's not, but that's a different matter), he will have another successful season ahead. The majority of last season's squad is still intact and Monday's game will give a good taste of what can be expected this term.

Dave Bassett did superbly to lead Forest's promotion last season but now comes the acid test. His failure to strengthen the squad during the summer could come back to haunt him, not least because Pierre van Hooijdonk now has no future at the club. The trouble does not stop there. Scot Gemmill yesterday pleaded with Forest to include him in their plans for Monday. The 27-year-old Scottish international has found himself left out by Forest after refusing to sign a new contract. And even though manager Dave Bassett could be without three key midfielders, Gemmill is unlikely to play.

INJURIES: Not confirmed.

SUSPENDED: No first-team squad players on either side.

Match analysis by Nick Harris

TOMORROW'S TELEVISED MATCH (4.0)

Southampton v Liverpool

Last Season: 1-1

DAVE JONES, the Southampton manager, believes Michael Owen faces a tough season ahead as his team prepares to meet Liverpool at The Dell in their first Premiership game tomorrow.

"Everyone in the Premiership will be under pressure to produce after the way the summer has gone and all the excitement of the World Cup," Jones said. "Owen is going to be under more pressure than most because of what people are now expecting of him. We've had a good pre-season and there is a buzz of excitement about the place."

There is hope at The Dell that the Saints can do more than simply survive their perennial battle against relegation and with debuts likely to being given to Mark Hughes, David Howells and Stuart Ripley tomorrow, confidence is high. "Playing Liverpool in the first game of the season is a great way to start and I'm glad we're at home," Jones said. "It will give us the chance to get off to a good start," he added.

Liverpool's captain, Paul Ince, plus the new signings Steve Staunton and Vegard Heggem, are all expected to recover from injuries to be fit for the match. Ince (groin) and Heggem (back) both picked up injuries in the recent friendly victory over Internazionale while the Irish defender Staunton has a toe problem. Patrik Berger could form a front partnership with Owen, while Jason McAteer is expected to play in midfield. The American goalkeeper Brad Friedel will keep out David James.

INJURED: Southampton: David Hirst. Liverpool: Robbie Fowler.

SUSPENDED: Southampton: Francis Benali (four matches). Liverpool: No first team players.

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