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ONCE THE least popular club in the country, Arsenal will now earn the nation's gratitude if they can prevent Manchester United running away with another championship. Despite losing Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars for silly money, they kept up well for a dozen games, then endured the usual dodgy November, losing ground in the Premiership and the Champions' League. The question was what would happen if Thierry Henry ever stopped scoring; the answer turned out to be a drought, which helped United to an eight-point lead. More recently, Nwankwo Kanu remembered what the white posts were for and the midfield began contributing goals again. But with Dennis Bergkamp inconsistent and Sylvain Wiltord not living up to his pounds 13m fee, the onus is still on Henry. Discipline remains a problem, and it may all end up as the sort of season most clubs would kill for, but with Wenger's virtuosi playing second fiddle again to the Manchester Symphonia.

Star player: Silvinho.

Could do better: Sylvain Wiltord.

Aston Villa

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BY MOST standards, Villa's season has been satisfactory; the Champions' League remains within touching distance. So why are the natives restless? Because the club, specifically Doug Ellis, is perceived as lacking the ambition to invest in the players who, in John Gregory's view, could make the difference between a place among the also-rans and a top-three finish. The Villa manager continues to seek a "big-hitter" up front, hence the pursuit of sundry South Africans and South Americans, but his chairman has been reluctant to spend big with the transfer system under threat. The players apparently share Gregory's opinion, with Gareth Southgate still keen to leave, though Villa's defensive solidity is unaffected. Alpay Ozalan has seamlessly replaced Ugo Ehiogu and David James deserved his England recall. David Ginola has performed only fitfully, as has Dion Dublin, and they rely too heavily on Paul Merson for creativity. Hard to beat but likely to miss out without new blood.

Star player: Paul Merson.

Could do better: David Ginola.

Bradford City

THIS TIME last year Geoffrey Richmond, a chairman who merits the description "colourful", predicted the scores for the rest of the season of Bradford's relegation rivals and stated his team would survive against the odds. It would be interesting to know if Mystic Geoff intends to repeat the experiment. Last season Bradford accumulated just 36 points, the lowest return by any top-flight club that have retained their status since three for a win was introduced. This time they are on course for 25 and certain doom. The problem remains the same; a chronic inability to find the net. The arrival of Benito Carbone, rightly described as "the most exciting signing in the history of the club", and Stan Collymore have produced brief flashes of brilliance and nothing more. In a year when Bradford have had three managers, the arrival of Jim Jefferies promises that they will at least go into the New Year led by a man shot through with common sense.

Star player: Stuart McCall.

Could do better: Stan Collymore.

Charlton Athletic

ALAN CURBISHLEY and company have learnt some useful lessons from their previous Premiership campaign, notably the importance of winning home games against the less demanding opposition and adding to the squad earlier rather than later. Curbishley has also been prepared to drop under- achieving players more readily, partly because the squad was strengthened (with the South Africans Mark Fish and Shaun Bartlett) as soon as a weakness was identified. The prolonged absence of last season's leading scorer, Andy Hunt, with a debilitating virus mirrored Clive Mendonca's costly injury two years ago and could have had the same effect had Bartlett not been brought in promptly. The two goals on his debut in the epic 3-3 draw with Manchester United immediately increased confidence and optimism, as well as providing support for Jonatan Johansson. Confidence now needs to be reflected in improved away results in order to stay out of trouble.

Star player: Graham Stuart.

Could do better: Carl Tiler.


HAVING GIVEN Gianluca Vialli pounds 24m to spend on Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Mario Stanic last summer and seen, in exciting victories over Manchester United and West Ham, that he seemed to have used it well, Chelsea's powers-that-be panicked after one defeat (at Bradford). Claudio Ranieri was brought in to "take on the big egos" and initiate a "change of direction", which appeared to mean signing fewer ageing Europeans and more young Englishmen to form the backbone of the team; so far Ranieri has bought a Dane and a Yugoslav, and lost three British coaches. On the pitch, the problems have remained much the same, with emphatic home wins in "big" matches, when the superstars fancied it, and defeats at places like Southampton and Charlton when they didn't. But there is still a good deal of talent in the squad and a comfortingly easy run of home fixtures in December has offered some breathing space.