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The Highbury showdown of pressure and promise

London: Last season the venue was Old Trafford and the pressure was all on Manchester United. This time, the most important game of the English season takes place at Highbury and champions Arsenal are the team with everything to lose.

Arsene Wenger’s side, through to the FA Cup final and seeking an unprecedented second successive domestic Double, cannot afford to lose.

United head the table with 70 points from 33 games, while Arsenal have 67 points from 32 matches and a superior goal difference by one.

Should they beat their rivals, Manchester United would be six points clear at the top with four games left.

Arsenal would have five games to play and Alex Ferguson’s side probably have the tougher run-in, but United would have an enormous psychological edge for the final few games.

United have only partially avenged the painful 0-1 defeat at Old Trafford last May, when Arsenal clinched their second League and Cup Double in five seasons.

Ferguson’s team won 2-0 in the Premier League at Old Trafford in December, but lost by the same score at the same venue in the FA Cup fifth round two months ago.

Roy Keane and company will be desperate to prove they can beat their London rivals when it really counts, and victory at Highbury, where they have not won since August 1999, would be a delicious moment for all at Old Trafford.

United certainly have the momentum. They have won their last five league games 2-1, 1-0, 3-0, 4-0 and 6-2. Saturday’s rout of supposed title rivals Newcastle United was a spectacular demonstration of their attacking potential, with midfielder Paul Scholes’ hattrick at the heart of a wonderful recovery from 0-1 down.

With nine goals in his last six games for club and country, Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy looks back to his best.

“It’s the biggest game of the season now, no question,” Ferguson said. “We are set up nicely and we have got to the position I hoped some months ago we would get to. So it’s truly down to ourselves now.”

Meanwhile, David Beckham and goalkeeper Fabien Barthez have been passed fit to play on Wednesday, manager Alex Ferguson said on Tuesday.

Beckham who was suffering from a hamstring strain, was a substitute against Newcastle on Saturday while there were fears Barthez had suffered a broken toe in that game.

But Roy Keane (dead leg), John O’Shea and Ryan Giggs (both hamstring) are all doubtful and will face late fitness tests.

“We have David coming back, which is a terrific option to have,” Ferguson told reporters. “It depends on who else is fit, but I think David will be playing.

Arsenal can take heart from the way European champions Real Madrid dismantled United’s defence in their 3-1 Champions League win last Tuesday, with the central defensive pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Brown looking far from secure.

Wenger cautiously rated captain Patrick Vieira as “50-50” to be fit after he aggravated his long-standing knee problem in the scrappy 1-0 FA Cup semi-final over Sheffield United.

But the French midfielder is unlikely to miss the most important league game of the season and his clash with Keane should be explosive and decisive.

Arsenal hope to see the return of creative midfielder Robert Pires, who has missed two games with an ankle problem.

Wenger largely rested strikers Thierry Henry, the leading contender to be named footballer of the year, and Dennis Bergkamp against Sheffield United.

“We are masters of our own fate,” Henry said. “Don’t forget that we have a game in hand and that if we beat them we will be back in front.”

French international Sylvain Wiltord will hope to continue his good record against United, having scored the winner in last season’s title decider and the second goal in February’s FA Cup win.

“They’re a good side but we know we can beat them because we’ve done it in the past,” Wenger said.

Probable teams

Arsenal: David Seaman; Lauren, Martin Keown, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole; Sylvain Wiltord, Patrick Vieira, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires; Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry.

Manchester United: Fabien Barthez; Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown, Mikael Silvestre; David Beckham, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs; Ruud van Nistelrooy.

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