Football: Wright's chance for final fame

FA Cup final: Bergkamp's absence opens way for fellow striker as Shearer leads Newcastle's bid to deny Arsenal the Double
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The Independent Online
IT HAS all the right ingredients. The classic north-south contest, contrasting managers, World Cup hopefuls galore, two clubs gilded with Cup pedigree - one aiming to make history, the other seeking redemption - plus a whiff of controversy and touch of romance. Will this be the year the FA Cup final finally lives up to the hype?

Not since 1991, when Tottenham beat Nottingham Forest in the final of Gazza's wounded knee, has the oldest trophy of them all had a memorable finale. Last year's contest was a Chelsea walkover. The previous one, between Liverpool and Manchester United, a snorathon.

There are reservations. Form suggests Arsenal should win the tie at a stroll, while Newcastle's approach no longer stirs the soul. However, Arsenal may be weakened by the absence of Dennis Bergkamp, whose hamstring injury broke down in training yesterday, while Newcastle still have the potential to both excite and succeed if Kenny Dalglish slips the leash.

He may have to if he wants to redeem a season of soured promise and bitter division with victory. At Highbury last month he sought to stifle Arsenal and hope Alan Shearer could nick a goal. It almost worked as Shearer went close at one end while Arsenal were frustrated at the other.

But then Nicolas Anelka scored just before half-time and the game was over. Having been set up so defensively, Newcastle did not have the firepower to draw level and they lost 3-0.

Keith Gillespie did not play in that match and, while he has been erratic, he does offer Newcastle's best attacking option after Shearer. However, he has not played since being bundled into White Hart Lane's advertising hoardings by Colin Calderwood and, even when fit, does not seem part of Dalglish's plans.

Some of the Scot's team selections have been in line with the Guinness slogan "not everything in black and white makes sense" and today's XI is shrouded in doubt.

The spine - Shay Given, Nikos Dabizas, Stuart Pearce, Rob Lee, David Batty and Alan Shearer - is predictable, but not the flanks. Of these, the most important choice will the right-back who will have the daunting task of tracking Marc Overmars.

Steve Watson and Warren Barton are the most likely cadidates, but Dalglish may switch Alessandro Pistone, who has pace and did well when marking Ryan Giggs at Old Trafford, to the right and play Barton or Watson in right midfield.

Bergkamp's injury looks to have given Ian Wright the chance of a glorious end to a difficult season. If the Cup is in a romantic mood he will cement his World Cup place with a leading role this afternoon although, given his lack of match practice, he may struggle to finish the game.

Having won four and drawn one of the six games Bergkamp has missed since November, including the victory over Newcastle, Arsenal will be confident they can win without him. Their biggest worry is the need to regain their momentum.

They have relaxed since clinching the championship, losing heavily at Anfield and 1-0 to a 10-man Aston Villa and it is not always easy to pick up the pace. However, the team appears both relaxed and determined.

"It is a great day for the public," Martin Keown said, "but as players we must focus on the match not the occasion. Only the winners will be remembered."

As potential Double winners this team will be remembered more than most, but while Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, played down the historical importance of the game, saying that the team had to concentrate on the match in isolation, Dalglish was prepared to look further ahead.

"A cup can be a springboard to greater success," he said. "You think of Mark Robins' goal at Nottingham Forest [which earned Manchester United a third-round victory en route to the 1991 FA Cup triumph that eased the pressure on Alex Ferguson] and Kevin Brock's back-pass at Oxford [which, converted by Adrian Heath, helped Everton's passage to the 1984 League Cup final and probably saved Howard Kendall's job in his first spell at Everton]."

Both clubs went on to win championships and Dalglish, pondering the possibility of emulating them, added: "I can't think of a moment that changed it for us yet, but it is only when you look back you can say: `That was the turning point'."

Shearer's goal against Stevenage may thus, one day, hold a similar place in Toon legend as Robins' strike and Brock's error do at Old Trafford and Goodison Park. It would certainly be a better memory of the campaign than either the undignified squabbling with the non-Leaguers, or the later boardroom scandal.

The Toongate Tapes may impinge on today. Newcastle fans will be watching carefully to see if the disgraced former directors, Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall, turn up, and many will be angered if, as with the semi-final, Dalglish or Sir John Hall dedicates victory to them.

That aspect may be academic. Special performances from Shearer and Given could tilt the balance, but the odds favour Arsenal. They may have had an uncertain progress, needing penalties to beat Port Vale and West Ham, but they are tighter in defence, better balanced in midfield and, even without Bergkamp, just as potent in attack.

Having lost controversially to Newcastle in 1932, when the ball went out before it was crossed for the winning goal, and heroically in 1952, when depleted by injury, Arsenal should now gain recompense and add the men's FA Cup to the womens' on their open-top parade around Islington tomorrow.

FA Cup final at Wembley (Kick-off 3pm today)

Arsenal v Newcastle

David

Seaman

Lee Dixon

Martin Keown

Tony Adams

Nigel

Winterburn

Ray Parlour

Patrick Vieira

Emmanuel Petit

Ian Wright

Nicolas

Anelka

Marc

Overmars

Manager: Arsene Wenger

Shay

Given

Alessandro

Pistone

Nikos

Dabizas

Philippe

Albert

Stuart Pearce

Warren Barton

Robert

Lee

David

Batty

Gary

Speed

Alan

Shearer

Andreas

Andersson

Manager: Kenny Dalglish

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