Football: Wenger struggles to fill gaps in Gunners

  • @stevetongue
THE SUN was out, the sky was blue and Sheffield Wednesday, preparing for Liverpool's visit, thought they were in for a good season. Three months on, as the return fixtures are played from that opening weekend of the new campaign, expectations have been revised sharply downwards in Sheffield and Derby, but have soared in Sunderland and Leeds, while remaining much the same in the red half of Manchester: today the Treble, tomorrow the world.

It is to be hoped that the more excitable element at Old Trafford today can refrain from prematurely acclaiming United as world champions, when that title still has to be played for in January. Admittedly "champions of Europe and South America" does not have quite the same ring, but Sir Alex never was one for tempting fate. What his team can achieve this afternoon, without any quibbling over terminology, is to regain the lead in the Premiership, as Leeds United's retreat from Sofia late on Thursday means they have been granted an extra day before travelling to Derby County tomorrow.

On the first Sunday of the season a late own goal by Jaap Stam denied United victory at Goodison Park, where the talk was of Bill Kenwright taking over Everton and Roy Keane hedging over a new contract - plus ca change. If it seems hard on Everton having to play Ferguson's team for a second time, when they have not yet met the likes of Bradford City and Watford once. Perhaps, like visiting the dentist or filling in a tax form, it is better to get these things over with.

By three o'clock, it might be Arsenal as well as Leeds whom United have to overhaul to reach the summit again. In order to allow Sky three televised Premiership games this weekend, Arsene Wenger's side have an 11.30am kick- off at Leicester City, where victory would carry them to the top, however briefly, for the first time since United nudged them aside early in May. Arsenal will not have it easy - not only are Leicester in excellent fettle, with eight wins from 10 games, but Wenger is having the strength and depth of his expensively acquired squad tested to the full.

"This is the worst situation I have known for having players unavailable since I came to the club," he said yesterday. Patrick Vieira and Fredrik Ljungberg are suspended and the injury list includes David Seaman, Martin Keown, Oleg Luzhny, Ray Parlour, Stefan Malz and Dennis Bergkamp. Three defensive musketeers in Lee Dixon, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn are able to return, behind Marc Overmars and Nwanko Kanu.

While Frank Sinclair's last-minute own goal at Highbury was costing Leicester a point on the opening day, his former club Chelsea (who would also benefit from the same source a week later) were welcoming Sunderland to the Premiership with a performance that brought the first "awesome" of the season from Match of the Day's Alan Hansen. Paradoxically, the 4-0 drubbing appears to have been of greater benefit to Sunderland, whose work ethic has been redoubled to such effect that for today's return at the Stadium of Light they are looking down on their visitors, who have given the impression at times that domestic games are a tiresome interruption to the real business of the season. That business resumes early next week with a glitzy trip to Rome to play Lazio, which does not inspire any confidence that they will be up for a trip to Wearside. Having gone for a much more settled side in recent weeks, Gianluca Vialli must decide whether anyone other than Frank Leboeuf, who is suspended, should be held back for Tuesday.

Sunderland are still paying the penalty for taking their determination a few tackles too far - having reached 50 yellow cards before any Premiership team other than Derby had even got to 40, they have Steve Bould, Paul Butler, Alex Rae and Gavin McCann all banned.

Away wins for Bradford City at Middlesbrough, Southampton at Coventry City, Aston Villa against Newcastle United and Wimbledon at Watford back on 7 August all raised eyebrows to varying degrees and meant that the four sides in question have a chance to complete a double this afternoon. Subsequent form, however, suggests that none of the quartet should be backed with the Christmas box money to achieve one. Bradford and Wimbledon have only won twice since, and Southampton three times, their normal omnipotent form at the Dell suddenly waning.

Villa's Worthington Cup victory over them may have inspired Doug Ellis to make John Gregory his Manager of the Month for December, but Newcastle are on the up, having reached a seasonal high of 15th under Bobby Robson.

Danny Wilson's Wednesday, meanwhile, beaten 2-1 at home by Liverpool, have to look on tomorrow's game at Anfield, just as they have every other one this season, as a new beginning.