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English Premiership

Wenger relishing Pompey clash

PORTSMOUTH, December 29 – Arsene Wenger has long insisted his Arsenal team are good enough to win the English Premier League title.
They go to bottom-placed Portsmouth on Wednesday in a powerful position to prove their manager was right to make that bold assertion.

Wenger was a lone voice in a chorus of pundits predicting the title would be decided between current leaders Chelsea and champions Manchester United.

At the halfway point in an increasingly fascinating season, Arsenal are four points off the lead with a precious game in hand.

Who would have predicted that after an abject defeat at Manchester City earlier in the season when Arsenal looked so lightweight?

"The turning point for us was the second half at Liverpool earlier this month when we won after being behind at half-time," Wenger said.

"I have been saying for some time the team is talented, is hungry and has a great spirit. There is also, I notice, a desire to be successful," the Frenchman added.

"Of course, we have won nothing yet but we are in a strong position and it is an interesting situation now at the top of the table.

"We have that belief all winners must have but we are only at the halfway point in the season, there is a long way to go and to win the league we must improve together."

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Wenger’s conviction was fuelled by the way his team demolished top four rivals Aston Villa, one of the league’s up-and-coming teams, 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday after an evenly-contested first half.

One man made a vital difference. Gunners captain Cesc Fabregas came off the substitutes’ bench, scored twice and then went off again some 28 minutes later to nurse his troublesome hamstring injury.

The problem seems certain to keep him out of Wednesday’s match here at Fratton Park and Arsenal’s title ambitions could hinge on the extent of Fabregas’s latest injury.

If a scan shows the problem to be scar tissue, the Spain midfield creator may only be out for a few days. If the hamstring injury is a new one, a pull, he may be out of action for three weeks.

Wenger might also be without the Brazilian midfielder Denilson who has a back injury although the north Londoners will travel to the English south coast anticipating their 13th win in 19 matches.

Opponents Portsmouth have had a poor season, accumulating only 14 points and admitting to debts amounting to 40 million pounds, which could yet ruin them.

Their manager, the Israeli Avram Grant, believes the best way to cope with Arsenal’s smooth passing game is to disrupt it with some fierce tackling.

"We need to be more aggressive," Grant said. "Sometimes we can be too nice.

"I like Wenger. I like his ideas on how the game should be played and I like the way his team play.

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"Arsenal are strong but every team has a weakness. We need to identify that weakness and work on exploiting it."

As if Pompey didn’t have enough problems, they will be without Jamie O’Hara, who is on loan from Tottenham, but is banned after receiving his fifth booking in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat by fellow relegation candidates West Ham.

Portsmouth will also lose Kanu (Nigeria), Aruna Dindane (Ivory Coast), Hassan Yebda and Nadir Belhadj (both Algeria) to the African Nations Cup.

There is a chance all four will be required by their countries ahead of the Arsenal match, in which case Wenger’s rocky road to the Premier League title should be made all the smoother.

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