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Discipline a concern for Chelsea


A spanner in the works?

LONDON, March 26 (Reuters) - Arsenal's seemingly unstoppable charge towards the Premiership and FA Cup double comes up against the ultimate obstacle on Sunday in the shape of arch-rivals Manchester United.

The London club, pipped for the title by United last season after squandering an eight-point lead, will set a record of 30 top-flight matches unbeaten from the start of an English league season if they avoid defeat at Highbury.

Arsenal, nine points clear of Chelsea and 12 ahead of United, are also on course to emulate the 1999 United side that did the English double and won the Champions League.

They held Chelsea 1-1 away on Wednesday in the first leg of the all-London quarter-final, the first of four big matches in what manager Arsene Wenger has described as the club's most important fortnight.

Sandwiched between the games against Chelsea are two meetings with United, who have not won at Highbury since 1999 but drew 2-2 there last season. Sunday's league match is followed next Saturday by an FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park.

'The game at Highbury and the semi-final are the games that any player wants to play in,' United defender Phil Neville told his club's website.

'At this club, we're probably the one team that actually enjoys playing against Arsenal,' Neville added.

'You never know what might happen if we win at Highbury. Last season, they slipped up towards the end. We have seen teams slip up before with this kind of lead.'


Stirring added spice into the mix is the memory of the rivals' last clash, a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in September marred by the indiscipline of several Arsenal players. Four were handed suspensions and the club was fined 175,000 pounds ($300,000).

Those suspensions, however, seemed to galvanise Arsenal as their manager Arsene Wenger overcame team selection problems and improved his side's poor disciplinary record.

United, in contrast, have fallen apart since the loss of England defender Rio Ferdinand in January through suspension for missing a drugs test.

They went out of the Champions League against Porto, 3-2 on aggregate, this month and, although they ended a run of four league games without victory when they beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 on Saturday it was their first clean sheet in 10 matches.

'In the run-up to Christmas we had the best defensive record around, but we've been very disppointing over the last few weeks and have conceded a lot of goals through bad defending,' said United defender John O'Shea.

Alex Ferguson's side know they have little hope of retaining the title but victory over Arsenal would be sweet and would boost their confidence for the Cup game, which provides their only remaining route to silverware this season.

Arsenal, undoubtedly the best side in England and whose only losses in the current campaign have been when they fielded second-string teams in the League Cup, simply want to confirm their superiority with a 10th successive league victory.