The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Premiership heat on Arsenal

London: Arsene Wenger is facing a nerve-testing weekend with both Manchester United and Chelsea launching respective bids to take over Arsenal’s lead of the English Premiership.

Champions Arsenal have a one-point lead over Alex Ferguson’s title-chasing United ahead of Sunday’s trip to Charlton, a tricky encounter in which Wenger could find his normally steely resolve tested to the limit.

Wenger has already had a testing week. It started off in great style after the Gunners secured a 2-1 victory over Claudio Ranieri’s star-studded Chelsea last Saturday, prompting the Frenchman to praise his players’ for “consistency and mental resources”.

Since then, the midweek defeat to Champions League group rivals Dynamo Kiev and some unwelcome injury news about Arsenal’s talismanic midfielder, Patrick Vieira, has somewhat forced Arsenal back to earth.

After the French international’s first appearance for a month following a thigh injury, Wenger admitted his decision to field Vieira in the 1-2 defeat in Ukraine was premature.

“I was cautious with him because we took the needed time. But as well, maybe we were a little bit optimistic with him given the situation. We don’t know what is happening with his muscle. But he is not right, and it will be at least two more weeks.

“He definitely misses this weekend — there is no doubt about that.”

Wenger also has problems at the back where Martin Keown is expected to be out for another fortnight with a calf problem, although Swedish midfielder Freddie Ljungberg should be available.

The news of Vieira’s absence adds some spice to Sunday’s encounter across the city at Charlton, and it will not have gone unnoted either at Old Trafford where United welcome Fulham in the wake of their 1-0 midweek win over Champions League group rivals Rangers.

United were dominated at Ibrox on Wednesday, but Ferguson’s men came away with the essential and will go into their match determined to take all three points, and with it the Premiership lead. Fulham, who sit sixth in the table eight points adrift of Chelsea, will nonetheless be hoping to make up for their 2-3 defeat to Newcastle in midweek.

At United Ferguson has little in the way of injury problems, the only cloud hanging over the Scot’s head being the possibility of his star defender Rio Ferdinand being suspended for his failure to report for a doping test.

Chelsea are in the same boat as United and approach their home match against Kevin Keegan’s in-form Manchester City side having beaten Lazio 2-1 to go top of their Champions League group on Wednesday.

Fight for lead

In the Spanish first division, the fixtures computer has contrived to make Saturday’s meeting between Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna a fight for the leadership, and perhaps the title itself.

Valencia, champions two seasons ago, have 19 points from an unbeaten seven games, while Deportivo are just one point behind, having won six of their outings.

“Along with Real Madrid, these are the best teams this season. There is still a long way to go but I have a feeling that the championship race is going to boil down to these three teams,” commented Valencia’s Vicente Rodriguez on Thursday.

“Deportivo’s Riazor Stadium is a difficult place to get a result but we are going there with every intention of getting three points,” added the Spanish international midfielder, perhaps remembering that Valencia won there 2-1 last season.

Vicente will be doubly happy if Valencia consolidate their lead as he will celebrate his 100th game in the top flight of Spanish football on Saturday.

Deportivo were left rather battered and bruised after their 1-0 win over Monaco in the Champions League on Tuesday with Mauro Silva, Nourredine Naybet and Lionel Scaloni all facing late fitness tests.

Real Madrid will be out to keep up the pressure on the top two with a good win over Racing Santander on Saturday.

In the Serie A, Alberto Zaccheroni could not have asked for a tougher start to his Inter Milan career with unbeaten Roma, the visitors to the San Siro on Sunday evening.

Inter coach Zaccheroni’s first task is to end a miserable run of five games without a win.

While Roma are riding high in Serie a with 14 points out of a possible 18, two behind joint leaders Juventus and AC Milan, Inter are seven points off the pace in eighth place.

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