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Arsenal next in sights for in-form Gareth Bale

February 28, 2013

LONDON (AP) — Stopping Tottenham winger Gareth Bale has proved beyond most Premier League defenses this season, so there’s little hope Arsenal’s suspect back four will be up to the job in Sunday’s crucial north London derby.

By scoring eight goals in his past six matches, Bale is inviting comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as he almost single-handedly looks to lead third-place Tottenham into the Champions League next season.

Next in his sights is Arsenal, which is currently just outside the top four and facing a real fight to qualify for Europe’s top competition for the 16th straight season.

Fans, opposing managers and even teammates have been left in awe of Bale, who is the favorite to be named the 2013 Player of the Year by his Premier League peers later this year.

“Words can’t really describe how well he’s playing at the moment,” Tottenham midfielder Scott Parker said after Bale’s latest match-winning performance in which he scored twice in Spurs’ 3-2 win at West Ham on Monday.

Arsenal has managed to stay in contention for the Champions League positions despite being in the midst of one of its worst seasons in manager Arsene Wenger’s 17-year reign. Provided the team fails to turn around a 3-1 first-leg deficit in its Champions League last-16 match at Bayern Munich, Arsenal will have gone eight years without silverware.

Its creaky defense has been under particular scrutiny, with captain Thomas Vermaelen’s form having dipped and fellow center backs Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny failing to impress.

With France right back Bacary Sagna ruled out by Wenger on Thursday because of a knee injury, Bale has a great chance at White Hart Lane to improve on his 19 goals already this season — 15 of which have come in the league.

“I think anybody would love to be mentioned alongside the best in the world,” Bale said in an interview with British magazine Sport, which will be published on Friday.

“It’s flattering, but I don’t really look too much into it. I don’t get the newspapers or read too many reports, so I don’t really know how much hype there is. Obviously my friends tell me things, but I just treat every day as normal and focus on my job.”

With Manchester United having surged into a 12-point lead and Manchester City five points clear of the chasing pack in second and showing improved form, the fight for the remaining two Champions League spots behind them is gathering more and more interest.

Chelsea is currently splitting the north London clubs in fourth place and there will particular focus on its home match against West Bromwich Albion in the wake of coach Rafa Benitez’s outburst at the club’s fans and board, following the FA Cup win at Middlesbrough on Wednesday.

Benitez is likely to face a backlash from supporters at Stamford Bridge after accusing a section of them of damaging the image of Chelsea with their constant criticism of him.

“What they have to do is to support the team and then everyone has to stick together and we can achieve what we want to achieve — that is the Champions League. Simple,” Benitez said.

“If not, then next year they can carry on singing but we will be in the Europa League, so they have to realize that they are not making any favors — to the rest of the fans and also to the players.”

United is at home to Norwich on Saturday and manager Alex Ferguson must decide whether to play top scorer Robin van Persie, who hurt his hip in the 2-0 win over Queens Park Rangers last weekend.

The Netherlands striker could be one of the players rested ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League match against Real Madrid, which is level at 1-1 after the first leg.

Man City looks to be back its best form after impressive home wins over Leeds in the FA Cup and Chelsea in the league, and travels on Monday to an Aston Villa side that is third from bottom.

Last-place QPR, which is seven points adrift of safety, is away to Southampton and next-to-last Wigan is at home to Liverpool.

Also Saturday, it’s: Everton vs. Reading; Stoke vs. West Ham; Sunderland vs. Fulham; and Swansea vs. Newcastle.

Update hourly