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By ESPN Staff

Vermaelen 'not back before January'

Arsenal have confirmed that centre-back Thomas Vermaelen will not return to action until the new year as he continues to recover from an Achilles problem.

• Fabregas hoping for United return

Vermaelen has not played for the Gunners since picking up the injury playing for Belgium during their Euro 2012 qualifier against Turkey in September.

Manager Arsene Wenger had expected to have the 25-year-old back a week after suffering the injury, but his three-month wait will now extend to at least four as Sebastien Squillaci continues to deputise.

"Vermaelen is in a [protective] boot," Wenger told Arsenal's official website. "We want him back and I hope he will be back soon, but not before January.''

Since Vermaelen was sidelined in September, summer signings Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny have formed Arsenal's first-choice centre-back partnership, with Johan Djourou also called into action on a couple of occasions.

The Gunners beat Fulham 2-1 on Saturday to climb to the top of the Premier League on Saturday, but Cottagers boss Mark Hughes expressed doubts about the solidity of Squillaci and Koscielny.

"The centre halves are not as strong as they have been and you can expose them because they are an attacking team and always get their full-backs advanced in spaces to exploit if you can," Hughes said.

"If you put them under pressure ­sometimes they are not used to it and have to do things they haven't done work on."

Wenger's side have conceded 18 goals this season - two more than Manchester United, six more than Chelsea and seven more than Manchester City, who have the league's best defensive record.

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