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England's grand-slam weekend
by Paul Kennedy, December 14th, 2007 7AM



It's big weekend in the English Premier League with Liverpool-Manchester United and Arsenal-Chelsea on Sunday. In Spain, a rejuvenated Julio Baptista is finally enjoying himself at Real Madrid. In the Netherlands, the top-of-the-table clash between Ajax and PSV was threatened by a police strike.

Arsenal is clinging to its one-point lead in the English Premier League, but the Gunners, this year's darlings of the EPL, face a potentially decisive test when they host London rival Chelsea Sunday.

Arsenal tied Newcastle, 1-1, and lost to Middlesbrough, 2-1, last week as its unbeaten streak in the EPL ended. After a strong start in the UEFA Champions League, it had to settle for second place in its group behind Sevilla and goes into next Friday's draw as an unseeded team.

Injuries are starting to mount for the Gunners, who are heading into the busy holiday schedule. Spanish star Cesc Fabregas, Alexander Hleb and Matthieu Flamini -- all key players this fall -- were all uncertain to face Chelsea, and Dutch forward Robin van Persie is just now coming back from a two-month layoff because of a knee injury.

"Though I will certainly have to take a gamble on one or two, can I take a gamble on three or four?" Manager Arsene Wenger said after Arsenal's 2-1 win over Steaua Bucharest in the Champions League on Wednesday. "That would be a very risky so I'll have to assess the situation in the next three or four days."



Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez believes the Reds can end their six-year wait to defeat Manchester United at home when they meet Sunday at Anfield. "United are a top side and they have a lot of players with quality," Benitez told the club's Web site,, "but we want to beat them and we have confidence because we will be at Anfield, "It is an important game."

Liverpool goes into the weekend six points behind second-place Manchester United and seven points behind leader Arsenal but with a game in hand on both teams. The match is important to Benitez for another reason. Liverpool's American owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, will be at game. A strong performance, like the one in Liverpool's 4-0 win at Marseille on Tuesday, would go a long way toward easing the tension between the Spaniard and his American bosses, who will meet this weekend to discuss plans for the winter transfer market.

"If they [Hicks and Gillett] analyze the last three years, they will find that everything has been going in the right direction," Benitez said, "and I am confident that this meeting will settle all the problems. Before this misunderstanding, we had the same ideas for the club and we will have the same ideas again if we find a solution. In the first six months [of American ownership] we were working well together, winning games and signing good players and, if the relationship becomes good again, we will have the options to sign more."



Only a few weeks ago, there was talk of Brazilian bench-warmer Julio Baptista leaving Real Madrid during the January transfer window. But after several tantalizing performances, the player known as "the Beast" has moved into the starting lineup at Real Madrid, the Spanish leader going into Sunday's match against Osasuna.

"I think the hard part has passed and now it's time for the good stuff. It's time to have fun. Remaining confident and secure on the field is important," Julio Baptista, 25, told "I have always taken advantage of opportunities. I have to enjoy it now that things are going well."

Julio Baptista arrived at Real Madrid from Sevilla in 2005 but was loaned to Arsenal after just one season. After an unhappy season in London, he returned to Madrid over the summer expecting to be shipped elsewhere, but the summer transfer market came and went without a move. Talk of a January move has died down. He reportedly rejected to move back to London -- this time to Tottenham -- and a transfer to Roma seems unlikely, given his recent play in the Real Madrid midfield.

GOL TV, REAL MADRID-OSASUNA, Sunday (live), 2:55 pm ET.


Ajax goes into its match with PSV Sunday in Amsterdam, clinging to a one-point lead over the Eindhoven club.

The tandem of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Luis Suarez have combined for 22 goals in 14 games for Ajax, which has not won the Eredivisie title since 2004. PSV has won the last three championships but has struggled this season. It is coming off a 1-0 loss at home to Inter Milan on Wednesday that knocked it out of the Champions League.

The weekend's Eredivisie schedule has been in danger of being disrupted because of a threatened police strike. If the strike went ahead, the Ajax-PSV match and the Feyenoord-AZ game in Rotterdam would have to be postponed.

SETANTA SPORTS USA, AJAX-PSV, Sunday (live), 6:25 am ET.

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