Arsenal counting on the inconsistency of others: Football

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The Independent Online
Manchester United made such an impact in Europe last week that Saturday's defeat at Sunderland was bound to be seen as a fresh indication of how difficult it is to establish lasting superiority in England's premier competition. "Week by week, anything can happen in this League," Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, said when reflecting on the news from Roker Park.

Recent events at Highbury, a loss to Leeds in the FA Cup and two successive League defeats, had been enough to persuade the faithful that the Frenchman's initial season in north London will probably turn out to be one of appraisal. Arsenal are up there in second place, but disadvantaged by having played more games than the other leading contenders.

No statistic sets out more clearly the pernicious influence of television. "I accept that the game cannot exist without it," Wenger said, "and that traditionally there is a great deal of interest in the Cup, far more than in other countries, but the Premier League is the main competition and at this stage of the season we should have all played a similar number of matches."

Look at the games played column and you will see what Wenger is going on about. Arsenal have turned out in the League three times more than Newcastle and twice more than Liverpool. Manchester United have a game in hand on them.

Realistically then, the best Arsenal can hope for is to collar the extra place in next season's Champions' League, which could make the visit of Liverpool later this month a significant point in their season. In any case, the thing uppermost in Wenger's mind before the 2-0 defeat of Nottingham Forest was the return of consistency. "Even after our win at Everton the losses to Manchester United and Wimbledon had made the players a bit nervous," he said afterwards. "It took us a while to get going."

The anxiety showed in Arsenal's finishing. Without the suspended Ian Wright, who was in the press box moonlighting on radio, they found it difficult to punish opponents whose inability to score (24 goals in 29 matches) leaves no alternative but a policy of containment; an overloaded midfield with Dean Saunders the sole attacker. Desperate defending and long, hopeful passes to men who would not have achieved anything in the air if they had been standing on step ladders. No wonder Brian Clough seldom watches them.

Forest look doomed - "ominous" is how their new general manager, Dave Bassett described the situation - their efforts to strengthen the team getting nowhere.

Not a day to find Dennis Bergkamp in the mood to realise his full potential. A fault found with the elegant Dutchman is apparent lack of passion. Often moodily anonymous when things are not going well for the team, there are times when a boot up the backside would seem to be the most appropriate remedy. A touch of Wright's fire, ill-used as it often is, would not go amiss either.

Here, however, Bergkamp was in full flow, more than Forest were ever likely to contend with. "A high-class player," Bassett said, doubtless wishing that even half that quality of technique could be brought to bear on Forest's efforts.

Any hope Forest had of staging a decisive counter-attack - Saunders was only just offside when swivelling to fire past John Lukic - disappeared when Patrick Vieira, trotting back unmarked after receiving treatment, took advantage of inattention, putting Bergkamp in for a typically neat finish.

Arsenal's second enters the catalogue of bizarre incidents. Indicating immediately that he had heard a whistle when Scot Gemmill was tackled, Alf Inge Haaland scooped the ball away with his hands and conceded a penalty that brought Bergkamp his second goal.

Should Haaland have been sent off for a second bookable offence? The referee, Mike Reed, gave him the benefit of the doubt which is to say something about this controversial official. A total of eight bookings in a match that never got out of hand - what are some of these people thinking about?

Goals: Bergkamp (50) 1-0; Bergkamp pen (79) 2-0.

Arsenal (3-5-2): Lukic; Keown, Adams, Marshall; Dixon, Platt, Vieira, Hughes (Morrow, 81), Winterburn; Merson, Bergkamp. Substitutes not used: Shaw, Rose, Rankin, Harper (gk).

Nottingham Forest (4-5-1): Crossley; Lyttle, Chettle, Jerkan (Guinan, 67), Pearce; Haaland, Cooper, Gemmill, Clough (Roy, 78), Phillips; Saunders. Substitutes not used: McGregor, Armstrong, Fettis (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Bookings: Arsenal: Adams, Marshall, Hughes. Forest: Cooper, Gemmill, Jerkan, Haaland, Clough.

Man of the match: Bergkamp.

Attendance: 38,206.

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