Football: Wenger's troops face test of strength and character

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The Independent Online
Whatever happens at Highbury tomorrow, we can be sure of one thing. Employees of both Arsenal and Manchester United will tell us that `there is a long way to go.' Phil Shaw looks at the weekend ahead, while Nick Harris (below) analyses the programme match by match.

If there is a championship decider this weekend, it will be played in Glasgow rather than London. "Nothing," warned Alex Ferguson yesterday, "is settled in November."

The psychological impact of Manchester United opening a seven-point gap by winning at Arsenal cannot be understated. However, the distraction of Europe and relative depth of the Premiership would not let Ferguson rest on his laurels, even in the unlikely event of his being tempted to.

That said, the way Arsenal perform in the highly charged atmosphere of a packed Highbury tomorrow will tell us much about their potential to stay the course. So fierce has been the pace set by United that Arsene Wenger's side avoided defeat for 12 games and still found themselves off the pace after one poor half at Derby.

Although the absence of Dennis Bergkamp will inevitably be a factor, Arsenal had shown signs of faltering before his suspension. United overcame a far longer ban on Eric Cantona two years ago. Now, therefore, is the time for Wenger's team to allay suspicions that they rely too heavily on Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira.

The fixture carries a history of hostility which Martin Bodenham may be hard pressed to prevent surfacing. The bad blood between Ian Wright and Peter Schmeichel, Wenger and Ferguson, is a reminder that both clubs had points docked after a 21-man brawl at Old Trafford seven autumns ago.

That Arsenal may well field the same defence tomorrow is a tribute to the players' resilience. It may also be a sign that they have hung on too long. United will seek to exploit any hint of fading pace by working the ball into the space behind them for Andy Cole, once a Gunner himself, to reprise his sharp display in February's win at Highbury.

Steve Bould, who may pick up Cole a week before turning 35, admitted Arsenal needed a morale-booster, but added: "We're still only in November. United were sixth this time last year, so there's a long way to go. United are without doubt the benchmark - they've been the best side in the country for five or six years. But all teams get a bad spell. Let's hope their starts at our place."

The champions will stay top whatever happens today, although Blackburn would move within a point of them by beating Everton. Their improvement under Roy Hodgson can be gauged from a glance at the table of 12 months ago. With Tony Parkes holding the fort after Ray Harford's demise, Rovers had only just gained their first win.

Why, then, Evertonians may be forgiven for wondering, has their own transition - from Joe Royle to Howard Kendall via Dave Watson in a caretaker role - failed to produce a comparable transformation?

Blackburn's revival, as well as reflecting great credit on Hodgson, also indicates that the quality of the squad he inherited may have been underrated. Many, after all, were championship winners in 1995.

In contrast, Kendall was left with a painfully prosaic midfield. He also took on the problem of finding a compatible foil for Duncan Ferguson. The Scot can be maddeningly ineffective yet still turns in the odd unplayable performance. Which may account for the miraculous recovery of his compatriot Colin Hendry, days after the Blackburn giant was ruled out for six weeks.

The managerial sideshow threatens to become the main attraction at Anfield. In the wake of Liverpool's latest gallant failure against French opposition - deja vu all over again, to quote one Kopite - Roy Evans was assured of a job for life. That is not the same as saying he will remain in charge indefinitely, and the feeling remains that he will step down next summer unless a trophy is forthcoming.

Gerry Francis has at least been spared the dreaded vote of confidence. Nevertheless, if Tottenham's travails find them in the relegation zone tonight he may not even have a job for the next week. Darren Anderton is set for his first start this season, news likely to interest Glenn Hoddle, although whether he has returned in time to save the gaffer or see him go remains to be seen.

Developments at Rangers and Sheffield Wednesday have given Leeds and Derby fans cause to fear managerial upheaval. The Elland Road faithful, dubious for a long time that George Graham was using their club to rebuild his reputation, are warming to him now that a 0-0 scoreline is no longer the pinnacle of Leeds' ambitions.

For Derby, the absence of Paulo Wanchope and others on World Cup duty may persuade Jim Smith to play a tighter game than usual. Even so, the signs point to something closer to last year's 3-3 blip at the Baseball Ground than the no-score bore in the return.