Survival prime aim for Arsenal

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The Independent Online
Before Arsenal can turn their thoughts to the second leg of the European Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final against Sampdoria tomorrow week, they have the small matter of three Premiership matches to occupy them. Given the club's potentially dangerous position in the league Stewart Houston, their caretaker-manager, will be looking for something close to nine points from those outings.

"In our position, the Cup-Winners' Cup is just a bonus," Houston said yesterday, although he knows that securing their Premiership place and getting Arsenal to the European final would go a long way to securing the manager's role for him on a permanent basis.

A 3-2 advantage to take to Genoa for the return against Sampdoria is not the soundest base from which to be continuing Arsenal's attempt to become the first club to retain the Cup-Winners' Cup, but the matches that come before that hardly make Premiership survival a pushover either.

Liverpool visit Highbury tonight, followed on Saturday by Ipswich, who are virtually doomed but may prove unexpectedly difficult opponents in their Premiership death throes. Then on Easter Monday Arsenal visit Aston Villa, who themselves need to pick up points to secure their own future.

Houston warns against the notion that relegation is unthinkable and impossible. "People might say it can't happen to Arsenal but my view is that we will only get out of the game what we put into it. No team is invulnerable without effort. And, while we are scrapping to keep our Premiership place, we can only regard Europe as a bonus."

Arsenal are still without John Jensen, who has a groin injury, and have a slight doubt over Stefan Schwarz's fitness.

"We've got to be positive but, against Liverpool, you have always got to be aware of the backlash when they play you straight after a defeat," Houston said. "They've already qualified for Europe through winning the Coca-Cola Cup but Roy Evans and his staff won't let them rest or let them think they have done their stuff for the season. They will badly want to bounce back from that home defeat by Leeds on Sunday."

Chelsea, looking doomed in Europe after losing the first leg of their Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final 3-0 to Real Zaragoza, are hovering above the relegation zone themselves. They have won only two games in their last 18 going into their home match against struggling Southampton tonight.

Norwich, on target for a European place earlier this season before lapsing into a calamitous slump, are level on points with Chelsea but have played two games more. Their new manager, Gary Megson, has a tough first game after replacing John Deehan, at home against in-form Nottingham Forest.

As Houston pointed out, tonight's results will make the picture a lot clearer for everybody in the wrong half of the table.

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