LONDON: Arsenal and Manchester United launch their final battle for the English Premiership this weekend in the knowledge that any slip could be fatal.
Recent history proves that the team with the best away record usually wins the title.
Arsenal’s double winning team of 1998 are the only side in the last 10 years to win the championship without recording the best away record in the division.
Arsene Wenger has said that Arsenal’s displays at Highbury will determine the Gunners’ championship chances but it’s clear if they trip up on their travels they will not become the first club ever to complete the double Double of the English Championship and FA Cup.
To keep that momentum going the Gunners need to play at their best today. Graham Taylor’s men might not be in the best of form, but Villa Park has often proved a tricky venue for the Gunners, with last season’s 2-1 result the first Arsenal victory away to Villa since 1995.
Arsenal’s other away tests are at struggling Middlesbrough, Bolton and Southampton.
They face Manchester United at home on April 15, two days after their FA Cup semi-final against First Division giant-killers Sheffield United. Leeds and Southampton are their other home matches.
Injury-hit Arsenal travel to Villa without four key players – England goalkeeper David Seaman, defender Martin Keown and forwards Robert Pires and Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
But Wenger was unfazed.
“Injuries come along at this stage of the season and they are part of the game, but I am confident we have the talent in our squad to cope with them,” he said.
Manchester face a punishing end-of-season run, starting with Liverpool at Old Trafford today and then Newcastle away, Arsenal away, Blackburn at home, Spurs away, Charlton at home and Everton away.
They also play a two-legged Champions League quarter-final with Real Madrid in April.
Defender Phil Neville is confident United have the strength in depth to cope with such a demanding test.
“If we win all our remaining league games we will overhaul Arsenal and win it. That has to be our aim, so there is no way we can even afford to draw,” he told MUTV.
But, first, they have to avenge the League Cup final defeat against Liverpool.
The Merseysiders have had the edge over United in recent years, winning six and drawing one of the last eight encounters between the northwest rivals.
But it was United who won when the two sides met at Anfield in December and Ferguson will demand an equally committed performance from his players today.
Ferguson can also take heart from the current form of strikers Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Liverpool in contrast may have to do without Michael Owen as a result of the back injury he incurred in England’s bruising Euro 2004 qualifying win over Turkey.
It’s an equally important day at the bottom with form sides Bolton and West Ham both involved in matches which they should win. Bolton entertain Manchester City while the Hammers are at Southampton.
Victories for either one or both of them will pile further pressure on Leeds, who travel to Charlton in desperate search of the points that will take them away from the drop zone.
Newcastle have a tough trip tomorrow to Everton, who are looking to reignite their bid to claim the fourth Champions League qualifying place.
Everton boss David Moyes faces a dilemma over how to react to Wayne Rooney’s superb display for England in midweek. Moyes has been keen to protect Rooney from the risk of burn-out by restricting the 17-year-old to a handful of starts.
But will the Everton supporters understand if the teenager, newly established as an England starter, is sent back to the bench for his club? – AFP