Ashton getting close to return

Dean Ashton is setting his sights on facing Tottenham Hotspur as he contemplates a first-team return after recovering from a knee strain.

The striker is raring to go again and knows the televised Boleyn Ground derby on 25 November is likely to be a memorable occasion - and not just because it is the day after his 24th birthday. He said: "It is always a massive game, especially for the fans. Obviously I would love to be a part of that to try and influence the game. They are all important games at the moment but I think that one just a bit special for the fans."

Ashton returned to training this week and was hopeful of continuing his recovery on Thursday and Friday. However, he admitted the away fixture at Derby County this weekend was probably "just a little bit too soon" to add to his seven appearances, and three goals, this campaign. He added: "Obviously I would love to play on Saturday, there is nothing more I'd like.

"It is important that I am right when I do come back. It is no good for anybody if I just rush back after a couple of days training and then pull up. It is no good to me, no good for the team and it is no good for people watching. They want to see me playing week in, week out and so do I."

While it has been a frustrating time since he limped out of action on 6 October, he has been boosted by watching his team-mates build a four-match unbeaten run. "Everyone is confident in the players we have got now," he said. "We have got some fantastic players with a lot of experience and that shows in the team. Everyone looks around at each other and knows you have got a good player next to you who is going to put it in."

Among the players that have stood out of late is Carlton Cole, a fellow forward who has made the most of Ashton's absence with some key contributions. "I think he has been absolutely magnificent," he said. He has had some stick off certain sections of the fans but he's tried to block that out and get on with it. He has done a really good job - getting a few goals and putting in some real effort for the team."

Ashton recognises he may have a battle on his hands once all five strikers at the club - including Craig Bellamy, Bobby Zamora and Henri Camara - are competing for selection. "There is real potential," he said. "With competition for places, things can only get better. There hasn't been a chance for two people to cement places. I would love to cement a place myself and whoever that may be with is a fantastic player."