Arsenal has league title nearly in hand

EUROPEAN FOOTBALL: The Gunners defeated Chelsea for the second time in a week, putting them seven points ahead of Manchester United and nine ahead of the Blues

AP , LONDON, GLASGOW, MADRID, MILAN, BERLIN, AMSTERDAM, PARIS

Mon, Feb 23, 2004 - Page 20

This may have been the weekend that Arsenal cinched the Premier League title.

The Gunners defeated Chelsea Saturday for the second time in a week by a 2-1 score. The win at Stamford Bridge, coupled with Manchester United's 1-1 surprise draw at Old Trafford against relegation-bound Leeds, pushed the Gunners seven points ahead of Manchester United and nine ahead of third-place Chelsea.

The Gunners, with first-half goals from Patrick Vieira and Edu, are undefeated in 26 league games with 12 to play. United, with Paul Scholes scoring, has lost five and has won only two of his last five league games.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, whose side blew a five-point lead at this point a year ago, declined to call it a two-team race.

"No, not at all," he said. "It's still a really long way. You never know what's going to happen from now until the end of the season."

The title may be settled on March 28 when Manchester United faces Arsenal at Highbury in the biggest match of the season.

Arsenal has 64 points with Man United on 57 and Chelsea with 55. The lone point still left Leeds in the bottom three.

Just as it did last weekend in a 2-1 loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup, Chelsea took a 1-0 lead and couldn't hold it.

Chelsea went ahead after only 27 seconds. Vieira gave the ball away at midfield to Geremi, who crossed the ball across the face of the goal. Adrian Mutu headed it on to Eidur Gudjohnsen who scored from close range.

Arsenal answered with two goals in six minutes.

Vieira made up for his mistake in the 15th. The Frenchman passed to Dennis Bergkamp at midfield and then made a run. Bergkamp found him with a perfect pass and Vieira scored from 12m.

Edu scored in the 21st on a close-in goal, taking advantage when goalkeeper Neil Sullivan came out but failed to control a cross.

Arsenal played with a one-man advantage after Gudjohnsen was sent off in the 60th on his second yellow card.

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson tried to stay upbeat.

"Seven points is a lot but it is not insurmountable," he said. "We will have to perform far better than we did today if we are going to catch them because we have put ourselves in a really difficult position."

The three English leaders have away matches this week in the Champions League. On Tuesday, Arsenal plays at Spain's Celta Vigo. On Wednesday, Man United goes to Porto and Chelsea travels to Stuttgart.

SCOTTISH PREMIER LEAGUE

Rangers cut Celtic's league lead in Scotland to 10 points on Saturday, defeating Hibernian 3-0.

Celtic can return the margin to 13 today in a match at Partick.

Shota Arveladze gave Rangers a 1-0 lead on a 9th-minute penalty, and Michael Molls made it 2-0 in the 66th. Steven Thompson got the final goal on a penalty in the 83rd.

Celtic has 70 points followed by Rangers (60) and Hearts (43).

Paul Hartley gave Hearts a 1-0 lead at half over Dundee United, but Jim McIntyre equalized early in the second half. Mark Wilson made it 2-1 on an own-goal and Kevin McKenna scored the clinching goal.

SPANISH LEAGUE

Real Madrid stretched its lead at the top of the Spanish league to five points Saturday with a comfortable 4-2 victory over struggling Espanyol.

The league's leading scorer Ronaldo netted twice to take his tally to 21 goals for the season. Defenders Roberto Carlos and Raul Bravo also score3d as Madrid boosted its chances of repeating its title success of last season.

"It's an emphatic victory which makes us feel strong as leaders," Carlos was quoted as saying by leading sports daily newspaper Marca on Sunday. "We showed a real winner's attitude."

Second-place Valencia lost ground after suffering a 1-0 home defeat against FC Barcelona with substitute Gerard Lopez heading home the winner in the 78th minute. Third-place Deportivo could only draw 0-0 at Atletico de Madrid.

After the 25th round of matches, Madrid has 56 points, ahead of Valencia on 51. Deportivo has 50 points, seven more than FC Barcelona. Despite the absence of its suspended midfield pairing of David Beckham and Jose Maria "Guti" Gutierrez, Madrid demonstrated its ability to Champions League rival Bayern Munich, which it meets Tuesday in Germany.

With Madrid's Portuguese star Luis Figo left on the bench, the spotlight was on French midfield star Zinedine Zidane, who on Thursday extended his contract to 2007.

But it was another of Madrid's stars, Ronaldo, who opened the scoring with a 26th-minute penalty shot after captain Raul Gonzalez was hauled down by Espanyol's teenage defender, Carlos Garcia.

Six minutes later, Spanish international Raul Tamudo equalized with another penalty after midfielder Ivan De la Pena was felled by Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas.

In the 53rd minute, Zidane struck a precise cross from right to left, which Ronaldo controlled and placed in front of Roberto Carlos, who rifled the ball in.

Madrid's third goal came in the 67th minute after a corner kick by Figo, a second-half substitute, was headed in powerfully by central defender Raul Bravo for his first goal this season.

Two minutes later, Ronaldo beat the offside trap to walk the ball into the goal and record Madrid's 50th league goal of the season.

Central defender Albert Lopo pulled a goal back for Espanyol in the 84th minute.

Espanyol remained 19th in the 20-team first division with 20 points.

Barcelona's Lopez, a former Valencia midfielder, headed home from a corner by Xavi Hernandez to extend his team's unbeaten run to seven matches, its best in the league for four years.

Celta went down 2-0 at home to Malaga and suffered a blow to its morale prior to Tuesday's home match against English Premier League leader Arsenal.

Malaga's first goal came from a 16th-minute penalty, converted by forward Salva Ballesta for his 14th goal this season. Defender Sergio Fernandez was ejected for the foul. The second goal came in injury time through Uruguayan striker Diego Alonso.

Celta stayed in 16th place with 27 points.

Real Sociedad fell 1-0 to another injury-time goal by Sevilla's Uruguayan striker German Hornos, four days ahead of its home clash with Olympique Lyon.

Sociedad dropped to 12th with 31 points.

ITALIAN LEAGUE

Jon-Dahl Tomasson and Kaka netted second-half goals two minutes apart and Clarence Seedorf added another in the 85th to rally league leader AC Milan from a two-goal deficit to a dramatic 3-2 victory against crosstown rival Inter Milan in Italy's top league.

The win in the much anticipated Milan "Derby" in the soldout San Siro stadium consolidated AC Milan's lead in the Serie A standings, with 55 points.

Powerhouse AC Milan, the 2003 European champion, now has an impressive 17-4-1 record. Its closest pursuers, AS Roma and Juventus, must win in Sunday's action of the 22nd round just to keep pace.

AS Roma, with 47 points, takes on lowly Siena at Stadio Olimpico. Defending champion Juventus, with 46 points, will be at Bologna.

Inter, coming off a home loss to Udinese and struggling in sixth place, started the match strongly and almost unexpectedly piled up a two-goal lead on "lucky strikes" by newly signed Dejan Stankovic and returning midfielder Cristiano Zanetti.

Stankovic, the Serbian player who transferred from Lazio in January, scored on a corner kick in the 15th minute as several players from both sides fought for the ball close to the net without reaching it.

Zanetti, playing his first match since Dec. 7 following a pulled muscle, made it 2-0 in the 40th minute with a drive deflected by AC Milan defender Kakha Kaldze as Brazilian goalkeeper Dida dived on the opposite side.

Inter was passed in the standings by Parma which rose into a fourth-place tie with Lazio, at 39 points, with a 2-1 victory at Sampdoria.

Bundesliga

Bayern Munich's Bundesliga title hopes were lifted when defender Martin Demichelis' 87th-minute goal helped beat Hamburger SV 1-0.

Bayern improved to seven points behind Werder Bremen, which was held to 0-0 by Schalke.

All week, Bayern had heard Bremen had wrapped up the German title. No Bundesliga team had ever misplayed a nine-point lead after the season's 20th round.

But Bayern sounded defiant after cutting Bremen's lead.

"Bayern is a long ways from giving up," said Bayern coach Ottmar Hitzfeld. "Seven points is now a realistic amount to make up."

In other matches, VfB Stuttgart may have played itself out of the title picture with a 1-0 loss to Kaiserslautern. After starting the day even on points with Bayern, it dropped 10 back of Bremen.

Surprising Bochum held fifth with a 3-1 win against Leverkusen, a slot above. Moenchengladbah also drew 2-2 with Freiburg, Hansa Rostock beat Hannover 96 3-2, and Wolfsburg won 3-1 against 1860 Munich.

Schalke and Bremen traded numerous scoring chances in a high-paced match inside AufSchalke Arena, which was filled with 61,000 spectators.

DUTCH LEAGUE

Petter Hansson headed SC Heeren-veen's late winner after it came from behind twice on the way to a 3-2 victory over PSV, inflicting a body blow to the Eindhoven side's Dutch title hopes.

PSV also lost the services of captain Mark van Bommel, red-carded for arguing in injury time, and star winger Arjen Robben, a match-winner for the Dutch against the US in midweek, who was taken off injured in the 38th minute.

In the battle for third place, AZ Alkmaar opened up a three-point gap on Feyenoord with a 2-1 victory over RBC Roosendaal. Playmaker Barry van Galen got himself on the score sheet inside the first minute and Michael Buskermolen doubled the lead before Edwin de Graaf got one back for RBC.

FC Zwolle managed only its second win of a miserable season, edging NEC Nijmegen 2-1, but remains mired in last place, four points behind Vitesse Arnhem, which lost 2-1 to FC Groningen.

FRENCH LEAGUE

Defending champion Lyon closed the gap on leader Monaco to four points Saturday after beating lowly Le Mans 2-0.

Monaco, which has 54 points, crushed Montpellier 4-0 in a Friday night match, with striker Emmanuel Adebayor scoring a hat-trick.

Midfielder Florent Malouda gave Lyon the lead in the 22nd minute when he headed in powerfully from Juninho's free-kick.

Le Mans, which is in deep relegation trouble, suffered a further setback in the 38th minute when South Africa defender Thabang Molefe was sent off for a second yellow card after tackling striker Peguy Luyindula from behind.

Striker Sidney Govou made sure of the win with a neat finish when he collected Luyindula's pass and clipped the ball over the goalkeeper.

In other matches, Saint-Germain will look to hold on to third place when it hosts Guingamp at Parc des Princes.

PSG has lost only one of its last 14 league games.