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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 January, 2008, 12:00am

Kevin Keegan said in a television interview three months ago that he hadn't watched a live football match since his last game in charge of Manchester City in March 2005 and that he couldn't even remember who City's opponents were that day.

The memories might come flooding back to Keegan tonight when he goes into the dugout again at St James' Park as Newcastle manager, just over 11 years since his departure from his first stint at the club. Facing Newcastle will be Bolton Wanderers - the same team that Manchester City played in Keegan's last game in charge there.

Bolton recorded a 1-0 away win that day, and it would be a real dampener to Geordie expectations if they spoiled Keegan's homecoming tonight. The difference is that Bolton were seventh in the Premier League table prior to that win while City were 12th - for this game Newcastle are in a similar position (11th) as City were then, but Bolton are down in 15th place.

There is not much wrong with Newcastle's home form and they should herald Keegan's second coming with a win. The St James' Park faithful witnessed three comprehensive home defeats under Sam Allardyce, but those came against high-fliers Liverpool, Manchester City and Portsmouth, and on better days Newcastle were good enough to beat Everton and draw with Arsenal and Aston Villa.

Against teams below them in the table, Newcastle have won three and drawn one out of four at home this season, and Bolton will have to find significant improvement to stop them. Bolton have lost eight out of 10 on the road this season, with no wins, and in fact their away decline stretches back further - since the start of 2007, they have lost 14 out of 19 on the road.

Keegan has the makings of a decent side, as long as key players stay fit, and there could be plenty of excitement at St James' Park with Damien Duff and James Milner supplying the ammunition for Michael Owen and Mark Viduka.

Whether Keegan can scale the same heights that he did with Newcastle in the 1990s is open to considerable doubt, however, as there are very few examples of managers who exceed or even repeat their previous achievements when they return to a former club.

Keegan's managerial alchemy appears to have lost its magic over the years too. In the Premier League with Newcastle he averaged 1.85 points per game but with England he gained the equivalent of 1.56 points per game (1.36 in competitive internationals) and at Manchester City his Premier League average was 1.22 points per game.

Putting that into perspective, Keegan takes over a Newcastle side who have averaged 1.18 points per game this season - very close to his figure with Manchester City - and the idea that he will find great improvement may be fanciful. His average points per game in his first stint at Newcastle equates to 70 points over the course of a season, which almost certainly would bring Champions League football back to St James' Park, but that looks a long way off. Mark Hughes, who would have been a better choice than Graeme Souness for the Newcastle job in 2004 and arguably a more progressive appointment this time, continues to impress at Blackburn, who rate the best bet in the Premier League this weekend.

Blackburn host Middlesbrough, one of the teams identified in this column three months ago as likely losers at Ewood Park. The reason is that Blackburn have been very strong at home to bottom-half finishers in the last two seasons, winning 16 out of 20, with no defeats, and already the two halves of the Premier League table are well defined, with a six-point gap between them.

Blackburn have won four out of four this season at home to current bottom-half teams and their consistency makes them a good team to follow.

Boro, by contrast, have lost four out of five on the road against current top-half teams.

After all the talking, the African Cup of Nations finally gets under way tomorrow with hosts Ghana as favourites. The host nation have a good record in this tournament, reaching at least the last four in each of the last six editions, winning three and finishing runners-up once.

Even though the tournament is staged every two years, the pecking order in Africa is very changeable. Only two of the last eight winners had reached the last four in the previous tournament and in the modern era only Cameroon (winners in 2000 and 2002) have retained the trophy.

One factor is where on the continent the tournament is held - north African teams, for example, perform well in their region but less well further south. The power base of African football is in the west and, with Ghana hosting the tournament this time, a west African team is likely to win. Cameroon and Senegal have drawn well at the group stage and should do well, with preference for Cameroon.

Mali are potential surprise winners, but first they have to survive against Ivory Coast and Nigeria at the group stage.

Boro bashers

Wins out of six for Blackburn against Middlesbrough in the league and cup since Mark Hughes' first full season: 6

Kings of Lyon

League games without defeat against Lens for Lyon, who have strong claims for an away win tomorrow night: 12

Brighton up your day

Wins for Brighton in seven home games against teams outside the top six in League One: 5

Walsall wonders

League games without defeat for Walsall, who can continue their run with victory at Bristol Rovers: 14

FORM FACT:

Real Madrid's tally of 15 wins, two draws and two defeats in the first half of the season has equalled their own La Liga record, set in 1987/88

Up, up and away

Away goals for Espanyol, joint-highest in La Liga. The high-fliers have the firepower to win at Valladolid: 18

SHORTLIST:

Blackburn, Burnley, Wolves, Stoke, Southend, Brighton, Walsall, Lille, Juventus, Udinese, Betis, Espanyol, Lyon

BEST BETS:

$150 Blackburn (HW, Sat), Wolves (handicap, Sat), Southend (handicap, Sat), Brighton (HW, Sat), Walsall (handicap, Sat), Udinese (HW, Sun), Espanyol (handicap, Sun), Lyon (AW, Sun). Last week: no winning bet out of one

FIXTURES:

TODAY

Birmingham v Chelsea

Blackburn v Middlesbrough

Fulham v Arsenal

Tottenham v Sunderland

Reading v Manchester United

Portsmouth v Derby

Newcastle v Bolton

TOMORROW

Wigan v Everton

Manchester City v West Ham

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