THOMAS SORENSEN is at the centre of a £4m tug of war between Arsenal and Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson made the Sunderland goalkeeper his No 1 choice to replace Fabien Barthez.

After being on Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's wanted list for more than two years, Sorensen now finds himself wanted by the United boss as Barthez moves towards the Old Trafford exit.

Sorensen, 26, and Kevin Phillips will be Sunderland's most valuable assets should they be relegated and choose to cash in on their players to offset a potentially crippling financial situation.

The Dane was recently rated at £5m but the collapse of the transfer market, plus Sunderland's desperate need for cash if they are in the Nationwide League, means they may have to settle for less.

Ferguson has reluctantly decided to sell Barthez this summer, even though the World Cup winner has been in inspired form.

A number of high-profile gaffes last season cost United dear in the title race and he is now keen to return to France as Ferguson plans a mini-clearout that could also see Ryan Giggs leaving Old Trafford.

Sorensen's age - he is five years younger than Barthez - plus his outstanding form for Sunderland since he joined the club in 1998 count in his favour as Ferguson looks to ring the changes.

Wenger has failed to recruit an able deputy for David Seaman, who could retire this summer.

Richard Wright spent just one ill-fated season at Arsenal before leaving for Everton, Stuart Taylor lacks experience, and Rami Shabaan is out for the rest of the season with a broken leg.

Mart Poom was brought to Sunderland in November, initially to provide cover for Sorensen, who was recovering from a dislocated elbow.

But the former Derby County man could now begin next season as the Black Cats' undisputed first-choice keeper.

Jurgen Macho is expected to leave Sunderland when his contract expires in the summer after he was displaced from the starting line-up two months ago by Sorensen, even though he had produced a series of superb displays.

* Sean Thornton will be available for Sunderland's remaining nine Premiership fixtures after FIFA yesterday announced the postponement of the World Youth Championship.

Thornton, 19, would have missed up to five Black Cats games had the Republic of Ireland reached the final of the tournament, which was due to be staged in the United Arab Emirates but was cancelled because of the threat of war in the Gulf. Crystal Palace have confirmed they have had an attempt to sign Marcus Stewart on loan rebuffed by Sunderland.