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Gunners will go the distance this time says ex-Arsenal striker

PUBLISHED: 17:17 04 November 2009 | UPDATED: 16:31 07 September 2010

6 May 1978:  Paul Mariner of Ipswich Town is watched by Sammy Nelson of Arsenal during the FA Cup Final at Wembley in London. Ipswich won 1-0. \ Mandatory Credit: AllsportUK  /Allsport

6 May 1978: Paul Mariner of Ipswich Town is watched by Sammy Nelson of Arsenal during the FA Cup Final at Wembley in London. Ipswich won 1-0. \ Mandatory Credit: AllsportUK /Allsport

Former Arsenal striker Paul Mariner has backed his old club to take the Premier League title race to the wire. But he fears Chelsea remain the team to beat, with Carlo Ancelotti s side due to visit the Emirates later this month. Mariner returned to Englan

Former Arsenal striker Paul Mariner has backed his old club to take the Premier League title race to the wire.

But he fears Chelsea remain the team to beat, with Carlo Ancelotti's side due to visit the Emirates later this month.

Mariner returned to England last week after 13 years in America to take up the post of head coach at his first club Plymouth Argyle, where he is still a legend.

Arsenal, however, remains on his radar after he made 80 appearances in the mid-1980s, netting nearly once every four games.

"There's a maturity about the side this season," he tells Ham&High Sport.

"I watched Cesc Fabregas last week (against Tottenham) and he was excellent, but however talented he is, I have also been very impressed with Abou Diaby and Alex Song, because those guys allow him to play his own game.

"Those two have been incredible."

Mariner admires the impressive manner in which Arsene Wenger's young squad have performed in the first two months of the season - defying the critics with a string of high-scoring performances.

"The thing to remember," says Mariner, who also earned 35 caps for England and scored 13 times for his country, "is that lots of people were saying Arsenal could be knocked out of the top four this season.

"But it is clear that is extremely unlikely. They have responded brilliantly and are playing so well.

"Fabregas has clearly grown in stature and I also have to mention Thomas Vermaelen who has been simply outstanding from his first game onwards - what a great signing by Wenger."

But can they win the title?

"They have a very good chance. I think this side will go close, maybe closer than some expect, but looking at Chelsea I think they will be the team to beat. They have been relentless and have a very strong, experienced squad."

Despite more than a decade coaching in the US, most recently a five-year spell in New England, Mariner has kept abreast of developments at a club which, on the outside, has changed in all recognition since he departed Highbury in 1986.

"I actually know (new Arsenal chief executive) Ivan Gazidis well from his days in Major League Soccer, while I have also kept in touch with so many of my old friends from Arsenal," he adds.

"Despite the new stadium and everything else that has happened, one of the club's main strengths is its continuity.

"People like Liam Brady are still there. Ex-players remain within the club in some way. People like Ken Friar still work for the club.

"We had a smashing group of lads in my time there. I still speak with people like Viv Anderson, Charlie Nicholas and Tony Adams. David Dein remains in touch.

"I went to watch them play Portsmouth at Emirates a couple of years ago and they sorted me out with tickets and treated me so well. I was also supposed to catch up with Tony Woodcock that day...I met a great bunch of guys there and we'll remain friends for life."

Mariner also says Arsenal's class remains intact: "People ask me why Arsenal is so special. I remember my debut for the club was at Manchester United," he recalls.

"At Ipswich I'd been used to a couple of beers and a steak and kidney pie on the team coach - well, when I stepped on the Arsenal coach it was all silver service and afternoon tea. Even the training kit at London Colney was heated up for us on cold days ...that, for me, sums the club up. "

His return to Plymouth may not be quite as glamorous, but, now aged 56, Mariner says his second spell in the port city has, so far, been "an absolute dream".

"Devon is a sensational part of the world and it has been just been wonderful to come back," says Mariner, who left Home Park in 1976 for Ipswich before later moving to Highbury.

"Plymouth is bidding to be part of England's World Cup 2018 bid and has impressive plans.

"I have also been coaching in Japan as well for the past 15 years each summer and have many contacts so Plymouth asked me to be a global ambassador, which I was delighted to do.

"Then Paul Sturrock (Plymouth manager) was making changes in his backroom team and I met him for a chat.

"It was meant to be an hour but we talked for seven and got on like a house on fire. It's been great.

"In football you go where the work is, it is the nature of the game. I spoke to my wife and she said I had to do it. It's early days but I'm just so happy to be here.

"In all honesty, it feels like I've never been away... it's been great to come home.