NEWCASTLE, March 20 – Arsenal hope to put the controversy surrounding Cesc Fabregas aside in a bid to cement their grasp on a top four Premier League place when they travel to struggling Newcastle United on Saturday.
An impressive 15-game unbeaten league run has pushed Arsene Wenger’s side back into fourth, the final Champions League qualification place, at the expense of Aston Villa.
But the London club’s progress into the last four of the FA Cup in midweek was over-shadowed by allegations of spitting levelled against midfielder Fabregas in the wake of the 2-1 sixth round victory over Premier League rivals Hull City at the Emirates Stadium.
Fabregas, who has been sidelined by injury for three months, strongly refutes accusations made by Hull assistant manager Brian Horton that he was spat at in the tunnel.
The Football Association have written to both clubs, who have seven days to reply with their version of events, before deciding whether to investigate the matter further.
Fabregas paid tribute to his team-mates who have turned the club’s fortunes round – Arsenal are also into the last eight of the Champions League – since the 21-year-old suffered a knee injury in the 1-1 draw with Liverpool shortly before Christmas.
He said: "In recent games everyone’s attitude has changed and the frustration is turning into enthusiasm for the season. It’s good that we’re fighting on three fronts and we’re getting our football back to the top level.
"Now we need to keep it going and to improve. A great team is one that always tries to get better and better. We’re on the way, and we can’t lose that.
"We’re back in fourth place now and need to take care of what we have. We must realise that now we’ve got it back, we can’t lose it again. We know how hard we’ve been working for it, and it’d be a big mistake to ease off."
Manager Wenger is keen for the fall-out from the Fabregas affair not to distract Arsenal, who have been beaten only once in their last nine visits to Newcastle’s St James’ Park home.
They have conceded just one goal in their last 569 minutes of Premier League action, and expect to welcome back goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, who was rested in midweek after suffering an ankle injury during last Saturday’s 4-0 Premier League victory over Blackburn Rovers.
Newcastle are kept out of the relegation zone only by goal difference after one league victory in 11 games. They could find themselves in the bottom three by the 5.30pm kick-off as their 16-year stint in the Premier League comes under severe threat.
Kevin Nolan, who is available after serving a three-match suspension for his sending off against Everton, is expected to return to midfield. Habib Beye and Danny Guthrie, who have both recovered from long term injuries, are likely to have to make do with a place among the substitutes.
After running Manchester United close in their recent 2-1 defeat by the Premier League leaders, Steven Taylor is confident Newcastle can record a first home win since December 21.
The defender said: "We need a result on Saturday. We proved against Manchester United that we can compete with the top teams and we need to stick together to show character and come out fighting in every game."