Arsenal hoping for meaningful Man Utd duel

LONDON, Nov 1 (Reuters) Arsenal claimed a rare league double over Manchester United last season yet finished 21 points behind the champions.

The Londoners will no doubt hope anything they get from Saturday's lunchtime showdown at the Emirates Stadium 1815 IST will count for a little more in the final reckoning this time.

Arsenal won 1-0 at Old Trafford in September 2006 and 2-1 at Highbury in January, both secured by late goals from Emmanuel Adebayor and Thierry Henry respectively.

Henry has moved on to Barcelona but fears that Arsenal would collapse without him have proved well wide of the mark as they have made a flying start to the season on all fronts.

Unbeaten in the league, they are level with United on 26 points, both with a goal difference of plus 15, though United have played a game more.

Arsenal's unbeaten run was under pressure at Anfield last week but Cesc Fabregas grabbed a late equaliser as Arsene Wenger's side yet again showed the mental strength that has seen them turn around so many lost causes.

WENGER DELIGHTED Their tendency to over-elaborate, much in evidence last season, was again partly to blame for just one goal at Anfield but Wenger is delighted by the way many of his young side have stepped up a level since the departure of all-powerful Henry.

Fabregas is quickly developing into a master midfielder and has already scored 10 goals while Adebayor, often a frustrated squad member in previous seasons, is revelling in his new-found responsibility and has six to his name, all in the league.

''I hope we have convinced a few more people that we have the quality to compete for the championship,'' said Wenger, whose League Cup side beat Sheffield United 3-0 in midweek.

United boss Alex Ferguson, who enjoyed some memorable duels with Arsenal before Chelsea emerged as his major opponent, said this week that the north London side's inexperience would not necessarily count against them.

''I know challenging for the title is a new experience for a lot of their players but some of them have been there before and the manager has, which is a big help,'' Ferguson said.

''People said the same about us last year but we led the league for three quarters of the season so I don't think it's a handicap.'' Ferguson, unsurprisingly, is also pretty happy with his own team's progress, particularly the developing partnership up front between Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, who have scored nine goals between them in the last five games.

''Everything is coming together in good time to take on Arsenal in what could be a key match in our title defence,'' he said.

Chelsea, in fourth place five points off the pace, will probably hope for a draw at the Emirates and try to make up ground with a win at Wigan Athletic later on Saturday.

They will be hoping for more from Frank Lampard after the England midfielder scored a hat-trick in their 4-3 League Cup win over Leicester City in midweek.

Manchester City, third on 22 points, do not play until Monday night when they host Sunderland.

By then they could be trailing Blackburn Rovers (fifth) or sixth-placed Liverpool, who meet at Ewood Park on Saturday evening.

Reuters BJR VP0737

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Story first published: Thursday, November 1, 2007, 9:04 [IST]
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