Arsenal back the ‘beautiful game’

The turn of the year can be both an inspiring and a daunting time for English Premier League clubs as they reach the end of a congested holiday-fixture programme and contemplate the challenges that lie ahead in the second half of the season.

Someone who opts for the positive outlook is Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager.

Rather than share any shred of self-doubt, Ferguson (66) on Monday preferred to play mind games with United’s title rivals.

The reigning champions’ surprise 2-1 defeat away to West Ham, combined with Arsenal’s 4-1 victory at Everton, means it is the Gunners, not Ferguson’s men, who start 2008 with a two-point lead at the top of the table.

And Ferguson did his best to up the pressure on the Londoners by saying: ”I always feel if you reach New Year on top you have a massive chance.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, whose team are at home to West Ham United on New Year’s Day on Tuesday, sees no reason why their ”beautiful game” cannot be a winning game as well.

”We want to win and play the football we love,” the Frenchman said.

”I am convinced that is the best way for us.”

But one of the enduring attractions of the Premier League is that although the” Big Four” of Arsenal, United, Chelsea and Liverpool have a strong grip on the top spots, any side can beat any other on a given day, as West Ham proved last weekend.

”There are no gimmes in this league,” said Hammers boss Alan Curbishley. ”That’s what makes it so tough.”

United are at home to Birmingham City, one of several Premier League clubs managed by a former Ferguson player — Alex McLeish got to know his fellow Scot not at Old Trafford but at Pittodrie where they were both forging their reputations with Aberdeen in the 1980s.

January now features the mid-season transfer window, a potential lifeline for struggling sides.

It also offers a way for teams such as Portsmouth, who are about to lose several first-choice players to the African Nations Cup, to bolster their soon to be depleted squads.

Pompey are away to Reading, whom they beat 7-4 earlier in the season. But since that extraordinary match at Fratton Park in September, Portsmouth haven’t scored a home league goal — a run stretched to six matches with Middlesbrough’s 1-0 win last weekend — and have dropped out of the top six.

Sulley Muntari, Kanu, John Utaka and Papa Bouba Diop are all set to go to Ghana for African Nations duty and Pompey boss Harry Redknapp, renowned for his transfer expertise, is keen to bring in a new forward.

”To find strikers is not easy and that is the area I do feel we are a bit short,” Redknapp said.

Reading will hope the Madejski Stadium offers some home comfort against their southern rivals after last weekend again saw them score four goals on their travels and lose, this time in a 6-4 reverse at Tottenham.

”I feel a bit of an idiot because I said after the Portsmouth game ‘that only happens once in a blue moon’,” said Reading striker Dave Kitson, who scored twice at White Hart Lane. ”It must be a blue moon again.”

New Fulham manager Roy Hodgson, the bulk of whose career has been spent overseas, including spells with Inter Milan and Malmo, starts his time in charge of the second-bottom Cottagers at home to third-placed Chelsea in a west London derby.

Tuesday’s other fixtures see improving Aston Villa at home to Tottenham, with Spurs fans hoping Dimitar Berbatov, their four-goal hero against Reading, won’t be leaving them during the transfer window despite the striker being linked with a move to United, while Middlesbrough are at home to Everton.

Many Newcastle fans would love to be in the position of fifth-placed Manchester City, another club long-starved of success but with a large, passionate following.

The Toon Army appears to be losing faith with manager Sam Allardyce, for whom a win on Wednesday over City would be especially timely.

Liverpool, yet to be crowned champions in the Premier League era, could be 13 points off top spot by the time they kick-off at Anfield against Wigan.

Sunderland, fresh from a 3-1 victory over Bolton, continue their fight against relegation away to Blackburn, who beat basement club Derby by the same scoreline last weekend.

The Rams travel to Bolton, whose star striker Nicolas Anelka could be tempted by a transfer window move from the Reebok Stadium. — Sapa-AFP

Fixtures: (3pm GMT unless stated)

Tuesday: Arsenal vs West Ham, Aston Villa vs Tottenham, Fulham vs Chelsea (12.45pm GMT), Manchester United vs Birmingham, Middlesbrough vs Everton, Reading vs Portsmouth

Wednesday: Blackburn vs Sunderland (8pm GMT), Bolton vs Derby (8pm GMT), Liverpool vs Wigan (8pm GMT), Newcastle vs Manchester City (7.45pm GMT)

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