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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 December 2007, 06:57 GMT
Big four set for Premier showdown
Arsene Wenger
Wenger has appealed for calm ahead of Ashley Cole's return
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is convinced this season's Premier League is the most open and competitive title race he has experienced in England.

Champions Manchester United travel to Anfield on Sunday before league leaders Arsenal host Chelsea at the Emirates.

"I believe, without a doubt, this year will be the most exciting year in the Premier League," said Wenger.

"Since I have been here there has never been four teams who, after 16 games, are as tight as this."

Seven points separate league leaders Arsenal and fifth-placed Liverpool, who have a game in hand over their three title rivals.

Sunday's matches signal the start of a hectic Christmas period where all four teams will play five games over 17 days.

You have to be a man to handle the atmosphere. If you are a lamb, you are dead

Sir Alex Ferguson

But Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson said the two games would probably have no relevance in terms of this season's title race.

"If it was later in the season I think it would be significant," he added.

"We are not even at the halfway stage and we are talking about it as a title decider.

"There is time for whoever drops points and it's possible the four of us could all drop points by having two draws, which you would think would be the bookies' favourite scoreline."

Ferguson's opposite number at Liverpool, Rafael Benitez, agrees.

"Playing for the title in April would be more important than this match," confirmed the Reds manager.

"Maybe this game against United will be more important for confidence than anything else."

606: DEBATE
United-Road

Liverpool come into the match on the back of a 4-0 thumping of Marseille, which sealed the Merseyside club's progress to the last 16 of the Champions League after a disastrous start in the competition.

"We are in good shape after winning in Marseille," said Benitez. "When you play well, score four goals on a difficult away ground, everyone is happy.

"Obviously, it is important to win every game but especially when you are at home.

"Considering the rivalry between the clubs we want to beat United. It will be a special game."

Ferguson concurred with that view, urging his players to rise to the challenge of playing rivals Liverpool at Anfield.

I want our fans to be behind our team and not to especially have resentment with Ashley Cole

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger

"We both look upon the other as our main rival," he revealed. "You have to be a man to handle that atmosphere. If you are a lamb, you are dead.

"It encapsulates everything in British football: the passion, the fervour of the fans, the ability of the players."

United will knock Arsenal off the top of the Premier League should they win at Anfield, a match that kicks off at 1330 GMT, and will remain there if the Londoners are held or beaten by Chelsea in the 1600 GMT kick-off.

In the later game, Ashley Cole will return to Arsenal for the first time since leaving in acrimonious circumstances 20 months ago.

The England left-back is guaranteed a hostile reception but Blues manager Avram Grant is not worried about plunging him into the action.

606: DEBATE
Essien's Right Boot

"The only hesitation I have in selection is over quality and Ashley has good quality," he said.

"If he needs to play he will play. He's an experienced player and I don't think if the crowd boo him it will affect him."

Wenger has appealed for calm ahead of Cole's return.

"I want our fans to be behind our team and not to especially have resentment with Ashley Cole," stated Wenger.

"He did well for the club for as long as he was here and ideally you want everybody who has played for you to be respected.

"What is over is over and you have to take a distance with that."

I just think our biggest rivals at the end of the season are United

Arsenal striker Robin van Persie

The Gunners go into the match three points ahead of their London rivals and Wenger says he has been impressed by Grant's work since he replaced Jose Mourinho as manager.

"They have been discreet but efficient," commented the Frenchman.

"Avram Grant has got a completely different profile, he is not very noisy. But his team is efficient and that is important. I believe his results speak for him. He has done well. Credit to him."

Despite Chelsea being close behind the Gunners, striker Robin van Persie believes United pose a bigger threat to their hopes of regaining the Premier League title.

Van Persie, 24, said: "I just think our biggest rivals at the end of the season are United - because of the quality.

"That is why I think it will be a battle between Arsenal and them.

"United have lots of quality players up there who can win games for the team. Even when they are playing poorly, they have Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and lots of good strikers who can win games."



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