Football: Mettle detectors head for Highbury

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The Independent Online
A STRAW that Alex Ferguson was able to claw from Manchester United's defeat against Arsenal a fortnight ago was that his opponents will no longer be able to hide under a cloak of anonymity. The heavy burden of anticipation will now be on Arsene Wenger's team.

Today is the first occasion the Gunners will emerge from the tunnel with genuine championship aspirations and winning now will be an altogether different thing. An anxiety to do well will colour every thought.

"I looked in people's faces and saw fear in their eyes," Tony Parkes, the Blackburn assistant manager, said recalling his side's run-in to the title three years ago. "At that point it has nothing to do with ability."

Arsenal's mettle detection begins with Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury today which will be the first of a minimum 11 games in six weeks."We can't try any harder," Lee Dixon said, "but we relish hard work and we don't want that to be wasted by throwing away silly games."

Wednesday, who are 13th and have won only twice away this season, can safely be ascribed to the "silly" category but after that there are few fixtures that even approach the mildly amusing. Arsenal face Bolton, Blackburn, Barnsley, Liverpool and Aston Villa on their travels while, at Highbury, Newcastle, Wimbledon, Derby and Everton are fixtures where points could easily be dropped.

Having a three-game advantage over Manchester United is all very well if you can wipe out the six-point arrears between the teams. That is easier said than done. "United have slipped up but I can't see them slipping up many more times," said Michael Hughes, who will get a close-up examination of the champions' form with Wimbledon at Old Trafford today. "If I were a betting man I'd go with United.

"Arsenal have gone on a great run but I thought the result they got against us was lucky. It's in their hands but I can't see them winning the eight or nine matches they'll need. If they do then they'll deserve to win the League."

What will be decisive is the number of first-choice players Wenger and Ferguson will be able to field for the climax and, on that count, both had reasons to be cheerful yesterday. Although Emmanuel Petit is out with a leg injury incurred playing for France in Russia, Arsenal could have Tony Adams and Ray Parlour fit as compensation.

United, meanwhile, may welcome back Ryan Giggs and Peter Schmeichel against Wimbledon. Even Teddy Sheringham's one-match suspension is offset by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's acceleration towards his best form. The Norwegian scored for his country against Belgium in midweek and also got the goal in the 1-1 draw with Monaco 10 days ago.

"They're bound to be on a bit of a downer after going out of the European Cup," Hughes said, "but on the flip side they now know they've just got the League to go for."

That has been the case for Liverpool for some time now and their fixture at Oakwell will have a big influence on whether their Premiership's finale is exciting or a chore. They have won only one of their last eight League games but a slip-up by the top two and suddenly their Champions' League qualification will look less remote.

That presupposes they beat Barnsley which they dismally failed to do at Anfield in November for what is still the shock of the Premiership this season. The home side, too, are riding on an unprecedented crest of three successive wins.

Their players have the advantage of not having travelled the length and breadth of Europe in international friendlies, which is fortunate because they were close to exhaustion after beating Southampton 4-3 a fortnight ago. They have spent the intervening time sunning themselves in Majorca.

"The players were jaded at that point," the Barnsley manager, Danny Wilson, said. "Hopefully the break will have proved beneficial and revitalised them ready for what is going to be a tough last few weeks."

Four other matches today will also help to clarify or muddy the relegation waters. Bolton have the opportunity to build on their win over Sheffield Wednesday at home to Leicester, Everton and Aston Villa will attempt to be big clubs in deed as well as reputation at Goodison while Newcastle will be hoping to be worthy of their overpriced shirts away to Southampton.

The game that has six-pointer running through the centre of it, however, is at Selhurst Park where Crystal Palace probably have to beat Tottenham to have any prospect of staying the Premiership. Lose and they will be eight points behind Spurs, who will be without the suspended David Ginola; win and the gap will be down to two.

Attilio Lombardo's appointment as manager has coincided with a sudden surge of fitness. The Italian is available himself while Michele Padovano, Neil Shipperley and Paul Warhurst are either recovered or nearly so. Add pounds 1m signing Sasa Curcic and suddenly Palace do not look quite so hapless.