Football: Tottenham take role of kingmakers

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The Independent Online
TOTTENHAM'S MANAGER, George Graham, may be a season or three away from assembling a Premiership-challenging team, but Spurs have three opportunities to influence this season's title, starting tonight with the north London derby against the leaders, Arsenal. Graham's side then play Chelsea on Monday, and at Manchester United on the last day of the season.

The title picture could become clearer tonight. It is as likely to become more opaque. United (currently second, one point behind Arsenal with a game in hand) play at Liverpool. Chelsea (currently third, four points behind Arsenal) are still in with a theoretical shout for the championship, and meet fourth-placed Leeds, who will be hoping to usurp Chelsea and steal their Champions' League place. Defeat for any of the title contenders could effectively put them out of what has been one of the most open contests for years and nowhere is the atmosphere likely to more intense than at White Hart Lane.

Arsenal's visit will be the first since Graham took over at Spurs in October. Having already led his side to the Worthington Cup and a place in Europe, Graham will hoping to deny his former side three points for the second time this season, the Highbury fixture having ended 0-0. Four of the five meetings between the teams since Arsene Wenger took over at Highbury have ended even, so similar scoreline tonight would not be a surprise.

Arsenal go into the game unbeaten in 18 League matches, and if anything is likely to give them an edge, it will be the return to the starting line-up of Dennis Bergkamp, who managed only a second-half substitute appearance in the unimpressive 1-0 win over Derby on Sunday. Martin Keown is also available for the Gunners after a two-match ban. Spurs will be without Les Ferdinand due to an Achilles injury, but David Ginola and Tim Sherwood are likely to return.

"Although we face a tough game we also know we have the quality to do well if we can be at our best," Wenger said yesterday. Another manager who could say the same is Alex Ferguson.

His Manchester United side, unbeaten in 27 matches, have a good record this season against Liverpool, having already beaten them in the League and the FA Cup fourth round. They have also won 3-1 in the League at Anfield for the last two seasons.

"Our season has not been the same since we lost to United in the cup in January," Gerard Houllier, Liverpool's manager, said yesterday. "It would be nice to give our fans something to cheer against them." If the Merseysiders can draw strength from anything, it is the knowledge that they have already thwarted United's Premiership ambitions three times in the 90s. In 1992, a 2-0 Liverpool win at Anfield effectively allowed Leeds to take the title from United. In 1995, another 2-0 win proved costly to United as Blackburn took the title by a point. Last year, a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford cost United two points and Arsenal took the title by one. United will have Roy Keane back after suspension tonight and Jaap Stam and Andy Cole may play after injuries. Ryan Giggs and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are doubtful.

Should Arsenal and United stumble, Chelsea could capitalise by beating Leeds. A win will ensure that at the very least they take the third berth in next season's Champions' League. If Leeds win they will move to within two points of Chelsea, keeping alive their own hopes of a place in the Champions' League. "I still feel that the three teams in the top three places will finish there, and deservedly so," David O'Leary, the Leeds manager, said yesterday. He may be right, but nothing will be certain for a while yet.

PREMIERSHIP TITLE RUN-IN

TOP THREE

P W D L F A Pts

Arsenal 35 20 12 3 55 15 72

Man Utd 34 20 11 3 75 34 71

Chelsea 35 18 14 3 52 27 68

REMAINING FIXTURES

ARSENAL

Today: Tottenham (A). 11 May: Leeds (A). 16 May: Aston Villa (H).

MANCHESTER UNITED

Today: Liverpool (A). 9 May: Middlesbrough (A). 12 May: Blackburn (A). 16 May: Tottenham (H).

CHELSEA

Today: Leeds (H). 10 May: Tottenham (A). 16 May: Derby (H).

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