Nomura and the private equity company Candover are now the two front-runners to get the 3,000 pubs and bars being sold by Whitbread for £1.5bn.

Of the two, Nomura is seen as the slight favourite because it is already the UK's largest landlord with more than 6,000 pubs.

But bids have also come from Punch Taverns and Morgan Grenfell Private Equity, and insiders say it would be rash just yet to write off Punch chairman Hugh Osmond's chances.

However The Independent on Sunday says the sale could be put on hold because of contract difficulties.

Sunday Business 11/03/01 page 3

The Mail on Sunday 11/03/01 page 6 (Financial Mail)

The Independent on Sunday 11/03/01 page 2 (Business)