Arsenal grateful to Cole

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The Independent Online
Arsenal 1

Bergkamp 14

Manchester United 0

Attendance: 38,317

NOT since the first day of the season had Manchester United been beaten in the league, and defeat No2, yesterday at Highbury, is one that may well prey on the mind of Andy Cole. Rarely is the Arsenal defence so finely carved up at the feet of one man, but Cole missed chances that should have brought United a draw, maybe even more.

Arsenal survived the most precise and unrelenting of attacks in the second half and in the dying minutes came close to putting even more space between themselves and their visitors.

Bruce Rioch must be delighted with his side and, in truth, Alex Ferguson was not too unhappy with his either.''I thought we were desperately unlucky today,'' Ferguson said afterwards. ''I can't ask much more of them.''

United had been disappointing in the first half, but they made far more use of their better possession in the second and, as Eric Cantona increasingly came into the game, they always seemed on the brink of an equaliser. Paul Merson was forced into a crucial defensive header, Dennis Bergkamp was tackling back on the edge of his own area and when David Beckham was lining up a shot 10 yards out with 10 minutes to go, Steve Bould clattered in with one of many crucial tackles. ''The whole team defended brilliantly,'' Rioch said. ''United played with a lot of fluency and movement; it's marvellous that we kept a clean sheet against them.''

It was surprising that Manchester United did not manage one either, particularly as their own tight defence was only pierced by an error from Denis Irwin. David Platt sent a ball over the defence in the 16th minute and Irwin and Bergkamp set off in pursuit with Irwin just ahead. Irwin got the first touch, but what appeared to be an attempted back pass was poorly under hit and in missing a stride to strike the ball, he also fell behind Bergkamp. The Dutchman was clear and he coolly flicked the ball inside the right-hand post from close range.

The goal heralded Arsenal's best phase: secure in defence, every piece of possession turning into a counter-attack. Four minutes after scoring, Bergkamp forced Peter Schmeichel to save and Ian Wright also made him stretch with a finely judged chip.

Ryan Giggs was United's main threat, but their best chance of the first half stemmed from a masterpiece of control by Cantona, six minutes before half-time. With the ball at his feet in the centre circle, the field opened up before him. Giggs ran right, Paul Scholes ran left, and, as the Arsenal defence split in an attempt to cover both wings, Cantona slid the ball straight to Cole. He was unchallenged 15 yards out but he fired straight at David Seaman.

Within two minutes of the restart Arsenal were holding out and as the tempo of the match rose, so did its quality. The second half was almost all United's, but a brilliant Arsenal move stands out. Platt passed to Bergkamp, Bergkamp to Merson and Merson chipped a perfect cross to Wright whose terrific header was matched in excellence by Schmeichel's save.

The visitors were unswerving in their determination to equalise. Poor Cole could not apply the finishing touch to the best of their work. Cantona found Giggs in space outside the area and Giggs tightened the angle of the pass to put Cole through. For all Cole's bravery, committing his whole body with Seaman rushing forward desperately to narrow the angle, his shot was wide.