Football: Gritty Gunners ready to pounce

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AS ALEX FERGUSON reflected on the state of play in the Premier League championship, he narrowed the list of the most likely suspects to his own Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. "You could toss a coin between all three," he said.

The United manager was viewing the situation from the standpoint of a missed opportunity. If United had beaten Arsenal in rain-sodden Manchester instead of drawing 1-1 on Wednesday night, then the spinning coin would have been weighted in Old Trafford's favour. Instead, Arsenal will view the coming months with optimism.

If the ubiquitous playing field was level, you would expect United to have the resources to make their four-point advantage (albeit with a game in hand) tell, but Europe is looming and their lost points this season have tended to cluster around their Champions' League commitments.

Just a look at their six-match programme in 19 days during March - Internazionale (home and away), Chelsea (home), Liverpool (away), Newcastle (away) and Everton (home) - is enough to make you feel weary even if you have a squad as strong as Ferguson's.

Chelsea are still involved in the Cup-Winners' Cup, Aston Villa seem to have hit the marathon runner's wall while Arsenal have only domestic issues to concern themselves, which is identical to last season when they swept past a jaded United in the run-in. The rest factor is a compelling argument in Arsenal's favour and, with an expanded Champions' League next season, we could be entering an era when no team involved in that competition has a hope of winning the Premiership, but the way they played at Old Trafford is the chief reason for hope at Highbury.

True, United would have won the match if Dwight Yorke had converted either a penalty or a close-range chance late in the game, and Arsene Wenger admitted the home team were closer to winning 2-1 than his side, but there was a composure and assurance about the Double winners that looked menacing.

Andy Cole's equaliser was the first Premiership goal the flinty Gunners back four had conceded since 13 December and Nicolas Anelka, for all his complaints about life in north London, appears to have regained much from his two goals against England for France. Earlier in the season he looked tentative but there was nothing nervous about his side-foot into the roof of the net past Peter Schmeichel.

David Seaman is another man who has recovered his form. He made four world-class saves at Old Trafford that had Wenger purring: "He is back to his best. He works very hard in training and has gained physical power. He looks tremendously good."

Remember the Arsenal team that matched United blow for blow on their opponents' turf were without arguably their two best players, Dennis Bergkamp and Emmanuel Petit, and while United were also without Denis Irwin and Ryan Giggs the difference between themselves and their replacements is not as stark.

It would be foolish to discount United, who are the best team in the country, but Ferguson had ruminated beforehand that his side's vein of form and Arsenal's absences would make Wednesday a good time to play the Double winners. Yet they only drew.

"In games like these you need players to go that extra distance to be champions," Ferguson said, "and you saw that from both sides. Chelsea are the best team we've played this season but Arsenal are very close."

The problem for United and Chelsea is that Europe will mean the distance they have to travel in the run-in will be further than that faced by Arsenal. That could be the difference.