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Almunia backs blazing Gunners to stay distance

Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia has warned title rivals Manchester United and Chelsea to expect a battle royale for the Premier League crown.

The Gunners briefly returned to the top of the table when they overcame the sending off of defender Thomas Vermaelen, after which Almunia saved a penalty, to beat West Ham 2-0 at Emirates Stadium.

Although United leapfrogged them following victory over Liverpool, Chelsea are now back to third place after they could only draw at Blackburn.

However, the Blues have a match in hand and, with just four points separating the top three, could move second again if they beat bottom club Portsmouth at Fratton Park on Wednesday night.

United host Chelsea over the Easter weekend, in between the small matter of the Champions League quarter-finals, and so there is set to be plenty more life yet in what is the most exciting championship race for many seasons.

Almunia, 32, maintains Arsene Wenger's young side have displayed the qualities needed to stay the distance over the final seven matches.

"This team is full of confidence, character, spirit and fight," Almunia said. "We will continue to put pressure on our rivals until the end of the season."

Wenger believes the experience of veteran campaigners such as Almunia, Mikael Silvestre and Sol Campbell will be vital to the success of his emerging squad.

"In the last two months, Almunia has been outstanding, and has come back to his top form," the Gunners boss said. "When players start to be decisive at some moment in the game, that is a good sign."

Wenger also believes Arsenal have shown they can battle to grind out a result when necessary.

"Against West Ham, we saw another side of the team, which is a bit underestimated," he said.

Robin van Persie, meanwhile, hopes he could yet feature for the Gunners this season. The Holland forward has been out with an ankle injury since November, but has made a good recovery and will return to London to complete his rehabilitation.