Gunners out to take advantage of absent foes

  • Other Sport
  • Saturday, 01 Mar 2003

LONDON: With Manchester United preoccupied by the small matter of a League Cup final against Liverpool, Arsenal can take a huge step towards retaining their Premiership title this weekend.  

After a disappointing display in their Champions League goalless draw against Ajax in midweek, Arsene Wenger's side will be keen to get back to winning ways against Charlton at Highbury on Sunday.  

Victory would extend Arsenal's lead over United to eight points with nine games to play but the Gunners will have to make do without two of Wenger's automatic choices. 

Skipper Patrick Vieira is suspended while England left-back Ashley Cole is beginning at least three weeks of recuperation after an unexpected hernia operation on Thursday.  

Cameroon defender Lauren is also suspended but the Gunners could welcome back Freddie Ljungberg to the fold for the first time since mid-December.  

The Swede, inspirational in the title run-in last season, has been dogged by a combination of illness and injuries, including an Achilles problem.  

But after a reserves outing in midweek, he now seems ready for a return to the team. “I'm a bit fed up with all the setbacks I've had so hopefully it will work out this time.”  

Behind the top two, competition for a place in the top four and the associated spot in next season's Champions League is becoming increasingly cut-throat.  

Newcastle's blistering current form suggests they are unlikely to be dislodged from the top four and the final qualifying spot increasingly looks like being a battle between Everton and Chelsea.  

Everton have moved level with their London rivals on points last weekend and they will fancy their chances of overtaking them on Saturday when both sides are on duty in the north-east of England.  

Chelsea will attempt to become the first visiting side to win a league match at Newcastle's St James Park since September while Everton take on Middlesbrough at the Riverside.  

Boro could have Brazilian World Cup midfielder Juninho back in the squad for the first time since he suffered a serious knee injury in August, just weeks after re-signing for the club.  

More than 20,000 fans turned up in midweek to watch the little Brazilian play his first comeback game for the reserves but manager Steve McClaren will leave a decision on whether to include him in the squad until the last minute.  

Manchester City will attempt to bounce       back from their 5-1 thrashing by Arsenal last weekend when they make the short trip to Blackburn.  

City boss Kevin Keegan has spent the week trying to correct the defensive flaws which led to that humiliation.  

“Our defence has a lot to prove in the game at Blackburn. We have to prove that we are capable of defending well,” Keegan told the club's website.  

French centre-back will return to the staring line up after serving a one-match ban last weekend, when he was sorely missed.  

“He is a key player,” admitted Keegan. “I know we missed him and we defended so poorly with defenders who are normally so dependable having an off day.”  

At the bottom, West Ham will seek to build on their precious win against West Brom last weekend by closing the gap on Bolton and Birmingham, the teams immediately above the drop zone, with a win over Tottenham at Upton Park. – AFP  

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