13 December 2007

Liverpool need French form to stay close at home

By Mitch Phillips

LONDON, Dec 13 (Reuters) - Arsenal and Liverpool, who lost their unbeaten league records last week, host Chelsea and Manchester United respectively on Sunday as England's four European pilgrims return to domestic duties with a bang.
The four, who have all reached the last 16 of the Champions League, will line up on a "super Sunday" that should be an early Christmas treat for fans and armchair viewers alike.
The all-star double-bill comes relatively early in the season but could have a major impact on the title, particularly if United maintain their recent dominance of their north west rivals.
Tuesday's impressive 4-0 victory at Olympique Marseille may have rekindled Liverpool's European dream but if they lose on Sunday they will find themselves nine points behind United and possibly 10 adrift of Arsenal with any chance of a first league title since 1990 looking shot.
Manager Rafael Benitez, ever keen to shuffle his troops, will find it difficult to make too many changes after a midweek performance he described as "almost perfect."
Alex Ferguson rested most of his first team for Wednesday's Champions League dead rubber at AS Roma as he seeks to extend United's remarkable run of four wins and a draw from their last five league visits to the former fortress.
Chelsea's record at Arsenal is not quite as impressive but Arsene Wenger's team still have to go back four years for their last home league win.
Chelsea warmed up with a stroll in their goalless draw against Valencia, where there were returns to action for goalkeeper Petr Cech and defender Paulo Ferreira, who had both been out since early November.
Cech said he felt the momentum was with his club and looked to history for inspiration.
"When I came to Chelsea I remember going into Christmas five points behind Arsenal," he told the Standard newspaper.
"Then we got a 2-2 draw against them and by the time that period was over we were five points ahead.
"It's a time of year when there are so many difficult games in such a short space of time, plus squads have injuries and suspensions, it can really change things."
Didier Drogba remains out though after knee surgery and with a further New Year absence due to the African Nations Cup it is time for Andriy Shevchenko to step up to the mark.
Arsenal have had surprisingly few problems in replacing their key striker as in the post-Thierry Henry era they have scored in every league game.
Their total of 33 is four better than anyone else in the division and nine better than Chelsea.
Cesc Fabregas has played an important part of the goalfest with 11 to his name, including six in the league, but the Spain midfielder is struggling to recover from a hamstring strain in time to feature on Sunday.
He was certainly missed in the draw against Newcastle United and in last week's defeat by Middlesbrough, when Arsenal looked short of fizz, but the visit of the team who have supplanted them as the best in London should be enough to guarantee a return to their most effervescent champagne football.

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