LONDON:Arsenal will head into this weekend's north London derby against Totteham buoyed by comments from Patrick Vieira that the current team are playing better football than when he captained the Gunners.
Arsene Wenger's Premier League leaders have a one-point lead over Manchester United, with several first-choice players set to return after sitting out the midweek win over Blackburn Rovers which sealed their League Cup semis place.
When Vieira left for Juventus in 2005, and his France team-mate Thierry Henry quit Arsenal for Barcelona at the end of last season, there were fears that Wenger's men would struggle to compete for major honours.
But Vieira, who in the course of nine years with Arsenal won three Premier League titles, is in no doubt about the quality of the current squad.
"Arsene has done some great things and the players are responding to him at the moment," the midfielder told Thursday's London Evening Standard.
"In my time, we had a great team. We played well and were physically strong. But this current team plays better football than in our day.
"Whether that means they are going to win something is another story. But, whatever happens, Arsenal are one of the two or three teams in Europe who play the best football."
Tottenham have gone 19 games against Arsenal without a win. But under new boss Juande Ramos the Spurs have lost just once in their last 11 games and on Wednesday ended Manchester City's perfect home record this season with a 2-0 League Cup quarter-final victory.
"It was the best performance since I came to the club and it sets us up for the rest of the season," Ramos said ahead of this weekend's trip to the Emirates Stadium.
Liverpool, left 10 points behind Arsenal and outside the top four following defeat at home to Manchester United, have a chance to restore the confidence of the Anfield faithful against Portsmouth.
However, the seventh-placed south coast club, whose push for European football suffered a setback when they lost at home to Tottenham last weekend, have been impressive away from Fratton Park this campaign, winning six out of nine on their travels.
Bolton Wanderers and Birmingham City will both look to pull further away from the relegation zone when they meet at the Reebok Stadium.
Such has been the form of Nicolas Anelka, Bolton's top scorer so far this season with nine goals, that the France forward has been linked with a move to a leading Premiership club during the January transfer window.
But Bolton boss Gary Megson said: "There's been no contact with myself or the chairman in terms of people asking if Nicolas is available or not.
"Nicolas just comes in, gets on with his training, plays, and he does very well in training and on the pitch, so we would like to keep him."
Manchester City will look to recover from their League Cup reverse away to Aston Villa with England Under-21 international Joe Hart given another chance by ex-England boss Sven Goran Eriksson to become his team's first-choice goalkeeper ahead of the likes of Kaspar Schmeichel.
Fulham and Wigan, both in the bottom three, have a relegation 'six-pointer' to look forward to at Craven Cottage while English managers Gareth Southgate and Alan Curbishley go head-to-head when Middlesbrough play West Ham.
Reading, who risk being dragged into the scrap for top-flight survival, areat home to struggling Sunderland in Saturday's other Premier League match.
Arsenal could end the day four points clear at the top but champions United could finish the weekend at the summit if they defeat Everton on Sunday and the Gunners falter.
Injured captain Gary Neville, currently out with an ankle problem, and a veteran of many a title-winning campaign, said United were ideally placed for more glory.
"The seasons where we have struggled in the past are the ones where we have been out of contention at Christmas, so we are really happy with the way it has gone so far."
Chelsea, six points off the top after losing to Arsenal, are away to Blackburn on Sunday with midfielder Michael Essien insisting the west London side remain live title contenders. "We are not far behind and we are confident we can be in the title race."
Sunday also sees Derby, six points adrift at the bottom of the table and on course to go straight back down after promotion, at home to Newcastle.
Fixtures (1500GMT unless stated)
Saturday: Arsenal vs Tottenham (1245GMT), Aston Villa vs Manchester City, Bolton vs Birmingham, Fulham vs Wigan, Liverpool vs Portsmouth, Middlesbrough vs West Ham, Reading vs Sunderland
Sunday: Blackburn vs Chelsea (1610GMT), Manchester United vs Everton (1200GMT), Newcastle vs Derby (1400GMT)