/ 26 December 2007

Arsenal hope that history repeats itself

Arsenal have enjoyed Christmas Day at the top of the Premier League standings — and are hoping that history repeats itself and keeps them top at the end of the season.

The club at the top at Christmas have won the league for the past three years — Manchester United last season and Chelsea in 2005 and 2006. The last club to buck that trend was United, who led at Christmas 2003, but finished third behind champions Arsenal in 2004.

”If those statistics are right, let’s just go to the end of the season now and give us the title,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said with a smile. ”But really I feel it’s too early to say. In the last two seasons at this stage there was only one team involved — Chelsea or Manchester United. This year there are more teams in it, so it’s impossible to say how things will happen. Being top now is no insurance.”

While the rest of the European soccer leagues take a break, the Premier League has three rounds within seven days. Arsenal travel to Portsmouth on Wednesday and to Everton on December 29, and are home to West Ham on New Year’s Day.

Arsenal lead the league with 43 points, one ahead of Manchester United. Chelsea are third with 37, followed by Manchester City with 34, Liverpool with 33 and Everton and Portsmouth with 30.

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson refused to rule out Chelsea and Liverpool from the title race. ”You can’t say it is a two-horse race,” he said. ”December is a very important month. But we are still with Arsenal and we have a good chance.”

Arsenal defeated north London rivals Tottenham 2-1 on Saturday, and United kept pace by winning with the same score against Everton on Sunday.

United put aside the off-field fallout from the players’ Christmas party last Monday — where fringe player Jonny Evans was arrested and accused of rape — to win with two goals from Cristiano Ronaldo. Evans, who denies the rape claim and is on bail, watched the match from the stands alongside Rio Ferdinand, who reportedly organised the party.

The club said Ferdinand was out with a gashed knee, but he will be back for Wednesday’s game at Sunderland. United then face West Ham away and Birmingham at home.

Sunderland are managed by former United midfielder Roy Keane. United won 1-0 against Sunderland at Old Trafford in September.

”We always have hard games at Sunderland,” United striker Wayne Rooney said. ”They are at the wrong end of the table, so they will be fighting hard to get some points.”

United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar is out with a groin problem, while midfielder Owen Hargreaves returns from a back complaint.

Also on Wednesday, Boxing Day, it’s: Chelsea vs Aston Villa; Tottenham vs Fulham; West Ham vs Reading; Everton vs Bolton; Derby vs Liverpool; Birmingham vs Middlesbrough; and Wigan vs Newcastle.

Chelsea had another injury setback on Sunday when they lost goalkeeper Petr Cech to a side strain during their 1-0 win over Blackburn. Cech went off midway through the second half and was replaced by goalkeeper Hilario because second-choice Carlo Cudicini was sidelined after hurting his rib in training.

Cech, who Chelsea said had bruising on his hip and side, and Hilario were named in the squad for the Aston Villa game.

Defender John Terry, striker Didier Drogba and winger Florent Malouda are also injured for Chelsea. ”We are having to use the squad because of all the injuries,” Chelsea manager Avram Grant said. ”The contribution of those players coming in for the injured ones has been very good because we are still winning.”

Chelsea’s attempt to win three league titles in a row faltered last season when they drew three straight games in a row immediately after Christmas, when the club was without the injured Terry, Cech and defender Ashley Cole.

”We let it slip around Christmas time last year, so we are concentrating on the four games and we want four wins,” said Chelsea winger Joe Cole, who scored the winner against Blackburn.

Grant is confident that the Blues can bridge the gap. ”All four teams won their first game of the Christmas programme … it will be an exciting title race this season,” he said. ”For us, six points is a gap we can make up.”

Liverpool beat Portsmouth 4-1 on Saturday — ending a two-match losing streak where they lost to United in the league and Chelsea in the League Cup — and defender Jamie Carragher wants wins against Derby, Manchester City and Wigan to start 2008 on a high.

”Christmas is always a crucial time of the season,” he said. ”You can look at this period almost as a separate group of games in that sense. From these three games we would always say that seven points would be fine, but nine would be excellent. That would make a massive difference heading into the new year, hopefully we can be a lot closer to Arsenal by then.”

In the League Championship, leaders Watford host Cardiff on Wednesday and West Bromwich Albion are at Bristol City. Watford have 43 points and West Brom and Bristol are on 41. — Sapa-AP