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Arsenal will be eager to put a bad week behind them when they travel to Villa Park to face Aston Villa in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off in the Premier League.

The Gunners lost at home in the league to local rivals Tottenham Hotspur for the first time in 17 years last Saturday, and that derby defeat was followed by a 2-0 Champions League reverse at the hands of Braga in midweek.

That result means Arsenal are yet to secure their place in the knockout phase going into their final group match, something all three other Premier League sides have already accomplished.

And, just to heap more misery on to the shoulders of manager Arsene Wenger, the club’s talismanic captain Cesc Fabregas pulled up with a hamstring strain in Portugal, and is expected to be out for at least two weeks.

“We will consult every specialist we can,” Wenger said. “But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t stop him from being injured.

“I think he has more pressure on his shoulders than before. Pressure to do well, pressure to deliver, to be the captain. He feels responsibility to win things that’s for sure.

“I don’t know if that has an influence but it’s difficult because you can have psychological reasons or physical reasons – it’s difficult.”

Villa, meanwhile, are in the bottom half of the table, just three points above the relegation zone having won only two league matches since Gerard Houllier took over two months ago.

Houllier has signed ex-Arsenal winger Robert Pires on a short-term deal. The 37-year-old is in the squad to face his former club and, although he is unlikely to see much first-team action for the Villans, striker Gabriel Agbonlahor hopes the World Cup winner can make his experience count on the training ground.

He said:  “I rememberi watching Arsenal as a kid growing up – the ‘Invincibles’ era. It will be great to line up with him, knowing what he has achieved in his career.

“He will get a lot of respect from the lads too. He won’t be as quick as he was a few years ago but he’ll still have that eye for goal and that eye for a pass which will cause problems for opposition defences.

“That quality never leaves you. He will bring a lot to the side. Our younger squad will benefit.”

Carlo Ancelotti‘s Chelsea will make Sunderland fans happy for the second time in two weeks if they end their run of poor Premier League form at Newcastle United on Sunday.

Beaten 3-0 by Sunderland at Stamford Bridge on November 14 in their biggest home loss in nearly nine years, Chelsea travel north to the Wearsiders’ bitter local rivals for the lunchtime kick-off.

With second-placed Manchester United and third-placed Arsenal at home to Blackburn and away to Villa respectively on Saturday, the injury-depleted champions will probably need to win to return to the top come Sunday.

That would go down well in Sunderland, who are at Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday, but it will be no easy task. The misfiring West Londoners are going through something of a domestic crisis after losing three of their last four league games. They were also dumped out of the Carling Cup 4-3 by Newcastle at Stamford Bridge in September.

Ancelotti is under pressure and will need no reminding that Newcastle also thrashed Sunderland 5-1 in October, even if they lost by the same scoreline to Bolton Wanderers a week ago.

If Chelsea lose, it will only add fuel to Spurs manager Harry Redknapp’s recent assertion that this year’s championship race looks wide open with the big three no longer as dominant.

“Chelsea are not as good as they were. Man United are not as good as they were. I think we have closed the gap,” he said after Spurs came from two goals down to beat Arsenal 3-2 at the Emirates last weekend.

After years in the shadow of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, English football could even be turning back the clock to a distant time when any one of as many as 10 clubs fancied their title chances.

There is a long way to go yet but the evidence so far certainly suggests this could be the most open championship since the Premier League came into being 18 years ago, with Chelsea only six points clear of sixth-placed Tottenham.

Sunderland, in seventh, are in turn only six points clear of Wigan Athletic in the drop zone.

Tottenham host Liverpool, a far cry from their great teams of old, on Sunday afternoon and a victory at White Hart Lane – after securing their progress to the last 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday – would really lend weight to their challenge.

Spurs have Jermain Defoe back to full fitness and tipped by Redknapp to be a key player in the battle ahead.

“I would love him to get 10 goals in the next 15 games,” said the manager ahead of Spurs clash with Werder Bremen. “He could push us right into the title race.

“If he could have a run of banging the goals in, he could really take us on a run.”

Fourth-placed Manchester City are at Stoke City on Saturday.

At the bottom, West Ham United host fellow relegation-battlers Wigan Athletic in a match that the East Londoners have dubbed their “save our season game’, with reduced ticket prices to try and boost support.

Avram Grant’s struggling Hammers have just one win from 14 matches, with the Israeli manager’s job increasingly on the line after his number two Zelijko Petrovic was shown the door this week.

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