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Thursday, April 30, 1998 Published at 05:44 GMT 06:44 UK

Sport: Football

Title run-in: United steel or Arsenal grit?
image: [ Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson face test of nerves ]
Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson face test of nerves

Premiership table:

  1. Arsenal P-35 Pts-75
  2. Manchester United P-36 Pts-71
  3. ChelseaP-36 Pts 60
  4. Liverpool P-35 Pts-59

The 1997/98 Premiership season has turned out to be a classic. How things have changed since Christmas.

Then, Manchester United were in the driving seat, their main rivals seemingly incapable of putting any consistent run together.

United's confidence was also soaring after a brilliant display in the European Champions' League - the best results of any team in the competition.

[ image: United have won the Premiership five times]
United have won the Premiership five times
But as winter turned to spring, Alex Ferguson's dream machine started to cough and splutter. Defeats at Southampton and Leicester were followed by draws at home to Bolton and Barnsley.

At first, it did not seem to matter: Chelsea, Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers - United's main rivals - continued to drop points themselves.

But in North London, Arsenal fans were singing their favourite victory song: "One-nil to the Arsenal."

Forgotten and written-off after a miserable pre-Christmas spell, Arsene Wenger's team started to put together a run of unspectacular, low-scoring results.

[ image: Tony Adams: Rock in the middle of the Arsenal defence]
Tony Adams: Rock in the middle of the Arsenal defence
It was like the "boring" Arsenal of old, except this side had some French flair in midfield - Petit and Viera were dominating games with neat and accurate passing.

And their brilliant young keeper, Austrian Alex Manninger, had combined with one of the oldest defensive units in English football to produce what seemed an impenetrable wall - it would eventually lead to a record-breaking eight successive clean sheets.

The message was received in Manchester where injuries to key players were now adding to the problems of loss of form and confidence. And when Arsenal went to Old Trafford and secured a memorable 1-0 victory on March 14, the worried faces of the fans said it all.

[ image: Alex Ferguson had to lift his side after European defeat]
Alex Ferguson had to lift his side after European defeat
To United's credit, they could have folded completely when they lost to Monaco in the European Champions League quarter final. But the return from injury of Peter Schmeichel, Nicky Butt, and crucially Ryan Giggs, seemed to steady the nerves.

The 3-1 victory away to Blackburn confirmed that United were determined to hang on to their title. And even the draw at home to Liverpool appeared to leave them in the more comfortable position.

But Arsenal's 4-1 demolition of Blackburn showed why the bookmakers were making the London side 8/11 for the league and cup double.

Since then, Arsenal have set a Premiership record of nine consecutive wins.

As Arsenal began to pile on the pressure at the top, the United manager, Alex Ferguson, said the London club "can only lose the title with games in hand", taken by many observers as a ruse to return the pressure.

The Gunners still have a game in hand before they play away at Liverpool and Aston Villa.

The game that may seal the championship comes when Arsenal meet struggling Everton on Sunday, May 3. If the Gunners take three points from the match, the title goes to Highbury.

Many teams would have found the prospect of taking the championship and appearing in the FA Cup final too much to cope with.

But even Manchester United must be admiring the way Arsenal, until now, have maintained their composure. It may take more than wishful thinking from Alex Ferguson to trip up the Gunners now.

Remaining fixtures:

Manchester United
Leeds United (H)
Barnsley (A)
Everton (H) - Three points secures the title
Liverpool (A)
Aston Villa (A)


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