Christmas crucial to title chances: Wenger

AFP , LONDON

Mon, Nov 05, 2007 - Page 20

Arsene Wenger believes the busy Christmas period will play a major part in deciding if Arsenal can win the Premier League.

Wenger's side remain ahead of Manchester United on goals scored after a thrilling 2-2 draw with Sir Alex Ferguson's English champions on Saturday.

The Gunners twice fought back from a goal down as Cesc Fabregas cancelled out William Gallas' own goal and then Gallas grabbed a stoppage time equalizer after Cristiano Ronaldo's late strike.

Wenger insists Arsenal are in pole position because they have a game in hand, but he expects the title picture to become a lot clearer late next month, when every teams plays four games in 10 days.

"We are in charge at the moment because we have a game in hand," Wenger said. "But how it will go I don't know."

"It depends how much Chelsea and Liverpool will come back into the race. At Christmas you will know more because it looks as if Chelsea have found a consistency," he said.

Arsenal extended their unbeaten run this season to 18 matches in all competitions, while United's eight match winning run in the league came to a halt.

Ferguson defended his decision not to play defensively after Ronaldo's goal.

"I don't settle for a point at any time," he said. "We send a team out with ability to win matches and we try to win matches."

"In a game of that magnitude, there were going to be chances. We had ours and they had theirs," Wenger said.

Frank Lampard helped Chelsea move into third place -- within three points of Arsenal -- as his goal set up a 2-0 win against Wigan Athletic.

Lampard followed his midweek League Cup hat-trick against Leicester by giving Avram Grant's side an 11th minute lead at the JJB Stadium.

Seven minutes later full-back Juliano Belletti scored his first goal since his move from Barcelona and Chelsea were well on the way to their seventh successive win, while Wigan have now lost six in a row.

Liverpool's stuttering form continued as they were forced to settle for a 0-0 draw against Blackburn Rovers.

Rafa Benitez's side have won only one of their last four league games and are in danger of losing touch with the leaders.

Dirk Kuyt squandered a host of chances as the Reds ended Blackburn's seven-match winning run but still finished disappointed.

New Tottenham Hotspur manager Juande Ramos was denied a first league win as Middlesbrough fought back to draw 1-1 at the Riverside Stadium.

Ramos sprung a surprise by dropping star strikers Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov and was rewarded when Darren Bent gave Spurs a 35th minute lead with his first league goal since August.

But Luke Young drew the hosts level in the 52nd minute and Spurs remain deep in trouble.

Portsmouth beat Newcastle United 4-1 thanks to an astonishing three-goal blast in the space of three first-half minutes at St James' Park.

Noe Pamarot started the spree for Harry Redknapp's side in the eighth minute.

Zimbabwean striker Benjani Mwaruwari added a second a minute later with his eighth goal of the season and John Utaka piled on the misery after 11 minutes to leave the home fans stunned.

That wasn't the end of the scoring as Sol Campbell's own goal five minutes later gave Newcastle a glimmer of hope.

But Portsmouth were in the mood and Niko Kranjcar's free-kick deflected in off Steven Taylor to secure their fourth consecutive away league win.

Everton scored twice in stoppage time to clinch a 3-1 victory over Birmingham City.

David Moyes's side took the lead through Yakubu's 10th minute strike before Birmingham levelled through Olivier Kapo's 80th minute goal. But Lee Carsley and then James Vaughan scored in the dying minutes.

Aston Villa left struggling Derby County rooted to the bottom of the table as second half goals from Martin Laursen and Ashley Young sealed a 2-0 victory.

Derby have only won one of their first 12 Premier League matches and already look destined for a quick return to the Championship.

Danish defender Laursen broke the deadlock at Villa Park in the 57th minute and Young put the result beyond doubt four minutes later.

Clint Dempsey gave Fulham their first league success in 10 matches as the American's second half strike sealed a 3-1 win against Reading.

Under-pressure Cottagers manager Lawrie Sanchez desperately needed a victory after a woeful run and his side got off to the perfect start when Simon Davies opened the scoring in the 18th minute.

Kevin Doyle equalized for Reading in the 54th minute but Dempsey struck and then David Healy added a third.

In local soccer, the Taipei Animals won the Kaohsiung Fall Cup on penalties yesterday after the final remained scoreless through normal and extra-time. Mark Ersek scored the winning penalty for the Animals.