Football: Mendonca in the mood for Arsenal

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The Independent Online
ANYONE TAKING a gamble before the season started that today's game at Highbury would feature the league leaders would have got pretty short odds - but for the wrong reasons. With their next two away games at Liverpool and Manchester United after this afternoon's visit to the home of the champions, Charlton's spell at the top of the Premiership looks likely to be cut short by one of the cruellest fixture-lists any promoted side can have faced. But for today at least, not even Ruud Gullit can deflect the spotlight away from Alan Curbishley's men.

In Clive Mendonca they have an in-form striker who seems capable of causing problems for anyone, even an Arsenal defence that will be only too happy to welcome Tony Adams back after the illness that kept him out of last week's goalless draw at Liverpool. "I'm looking forward to playing against them because I like a challenge," said Mendonca, who was born within a stone's throw of Highbury.

Arsenal themselves may have their work cut out in front of goal as Charlton have now gone eight league games without conceding a goal, but they will have to make do without Richard Rufus, who starts a three-match suspension.

The season's first relegation six-pointer takes place at Goodison Park, where Tottenham are the visitors. Fans of neither side will appreciate the jibe, but last season's biggest under-achievers have not made the most auspicious start this time round and three points today could be just the catalyst for either side to start justifying their enormous pay- rolls.

The corresponding fixture last season was Christian Gross's first in charge of Spurs, and he will be hoping for a repeat of the 2-0 victory to prevent this season's game becoming his last. Despite the indecent haste with which managers are fired nowadays Everton's Walter Smith should be safe until Christmas at least, but Gross knows he may be lucky to make it to half-time.

Across the Pennines Sheffield Wednesday, 3-0 winners at Spurs last time out, meet Aston Villa who, in contrast to last season's record-breakingly bad one, have made a bright enough start this time under John Gregory, who is able to call on Stan Collymore for the first time this season.

"Stan is more anxious about his performance than I am," the laconic Gregory said, adding: "Basically he is on his own and his career is on the line. The fans have really been very patient with him, now he needs to work hard and no one will be able to criticise him. I've spotted a different Stan Collymore."

These days he is happy to be one of the lads and is very much part of the squad. A trip to Wimbledon is probably not exactly what George Graham would have wished upon his Leeds side this early in the season. Graham has nothing to show from two previous visits to Selhurst Park as Leeds manager, while Wimbledon look ready for another season of putting noses out of joint following last year's sabbatical.

Graham, who is likely to name an unchanged side, said: "We're expecting another hard game, a tight one. But the confidence among my players is high, and I'm happy with the way we've played so far, although there's more to come."

Leicester City, who look like having more trouble holding on to Emile Heskey than their place in the Premiership, will be hoping to pick up where they left off against Everton last week and Manchester United the week before. Victory for Martin O'Neill's side over Blackburn at Ewood Park might just have Roy Hodgson twitching over his Sunday lunch tomorrow.

Dave Beasant returns to The Dell for the first time since his move to Notingham Forest gave the former Wimbledon goalkeeper a new lease of life. Southampton will be looking to bounce back from last weekend's 5-0 drubbing by Charlton and Dave Jones just might find a place for Matt Le Tissier in his starting line-up this time. Nigel Quashie, signed for pounds 2.5m from Queen's Park Rangers, stands by to make his debut for Forest.

Elsewhere, Derby County go in search of their first goal of the new campaign at Middlesbrough, for whom Mikkel Beck looks set to play in attack, and West Ham go to Coventry where they will unveil their Chilean international defender Javier Margas, described by manager Harry Redknapp as "a genuine hard nut, but a quiet lad who just gets on with his job - a bit like a silent assassin."

Sounds nice.