Wenger welcomes Van Persie back to boost bid for title

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The Independent Online

Having predicted the title race would be a four-horse contest, before Liverpool faltered, it was no surprise yesterday to hear Arsène Wenger declare that Chelsea, just as much as Manchester United, were Arsenal's main challengers for the Premier League trophy.

"It's there to win for the three teams. At the moment all three teams at the front feel it's in their hands," the Arsenal manager said. "I never ruled Chelsea out, with such a big squad and they have to play everybody at home. I never personally ruled them out."

Chelsea are now five points adrift of Arsenal at the top, with a game in hand and with the leaders due to visit Stamford Bridge on 23 March, followed by United on 26 April. Although under Avram Grant Chelsea have failed to beat any of the top teams it doesn't mean that run will continue.

Wenger's own resources are about to receive a significant boost with the return, of Robin van Persie who could start against Middlesbrough today. The Dutch striker has suffered an injury-ravaged season but, after finally recovering from a damaged thigh, is in contention to begin a league game for the first time since scoring twice on 7 October against Sunderland.

"He can give us the final push," Wenger said of the 24-year-old. "He played the first eight games and scored five goals. So you think 'eight games, five goals – that could be an interesting total by the end of the season'." By Wenger's extrapolation Arsenal have been deprived of around 13 goals in the league. And with Eduardo's leg break, and three successive draws, the return of a striker is vital especially as, with United's game at Derby County ending before Arsenal's starts, they could have been deposed at the top by kick-off.

Boro are the only team to have beaten Arsenal in the Premier League so far this season. And with two draws against them in the last campaign, Gareth Southgate's first as a manager, it's a strange quirk that the former defender is yet to be beaten by Wenger.

The Frenchman dismissed Arsenal's recent dip, claiming that against Birmingham City and Wigan Athletic the results were due to "special circumstances" – Eduardo's horrific injury and a "hangover" from knocking Milan out of the Champions League – although sandwiched between was the home draw to Aston Villa.

"It's down to us and our performances," he said of Arsenal's prospects from now until the end of the season. "It's an interesting one for us, the next month will tell us much about the strengths of all the teams and I'm very confident that we will show how strong we are.

"We have shown since the beginning of the season that we can deal with any kind of resistance and any kind of situation and that's what we want to continue with. When you fight for the big prizes and get into March and April then every game can change your season. From fantastic to super-fantastic to terrible and that's what we want. What we don't want is to be out of the championship."

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