Football: Highbury trap awaits tense Villa: Rupert Metcalf looks at the key issues in today's Premier League matches

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The Independent Online
WITH TWO cup finals to look forward to, and protection of their top performers uppermost in their minds, Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday could be forgiven for taking a relaxed approach in their remaining Premier League fixtures.

Wednesday entertain Southampton this afternoon in an encounter which looks like a mid-table stalemate, but the Gunners will have a chance to influence the title race even though they are 19 points off the pace. The visitors to Highbury are Aston Villa, who lost the league leadership to Manchester United on Saturday, and the home side's England forward, Paul Merson, has promised a warm welcome for Ron Atkinson's troops.

'Villa are going to have a hard game,' Merson said yesterday. 'No one can be sure of their place for the final, and everyone wants to play in it.' Arsenal's first Wembley date with Wednesday, in the Coca-Cola Cup final, is on Sunday.

'We know we can make history by becoming the first team to win the League and FA Cups in one season, but everyone just wants to play at Wembley,' Merson added. 'We know that the manager will not pick anyone who is not doing the business. We know he's not afraid. He'll do what he thinks is best for the team.

'You could tell how motivated the players are by the way tackles were going in against Ipswich,' said Merson, who scored the winner on Saturday at Portman Road. 'It will be the same against Villa. Having won the championship, we also understand what Villa are facing. We know how difficult it gets for a side in their position at this stage of the season.'

Manchester United, a point ahead of Villa, have an equally problematic trip to Coventry City, whose manager, Bobby Gould, favours Alex Ferguson's men for the title.

'Until people get into a situation like this, you don't know how they're going to handle it,' Gould said. 'Ron's still learning about his players, but Alex and his lads have already had a year under that duress. They cuffed us 5-0 earlier in the season. They're a brilliant side.'

The bottom of the table is similarly tense - and if Middlesbrough lose at their relegation rivals, Crystal Palace, they can dig out their route maps to Charlton and Barnsley.

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