Arsenal minds on Real thing

Footballby mike rowbottomArsenal0Wimbledon0
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The Independent Online
The match foremost in everyone's mind at Highbury was not actually the one played last night. This was Arsenal's last fixture before they defend the European Cup-Winners' Cup on Wednesday against Real Zaragoza. Like good drivers, they maintained their gaze on the middle distance.

The Arsenal manager, Stewart Houston, announced afterwards that all his players had come through unscathed, and that the team was now able to go into the final "totally committed to winning it." Houston, who will discuss Zaragoza later this week with Glenn Hoddle, whose Chelsea side they beat in the semi-final, says he already has his final team in mind.

Wimbledon had obliged their fellow Londoners by bringing this game forward; at times, it seemed as if the clubs had also come to an understanding about how the match would go, although Houston pointed out his own hoarseness as proof of how keen he had been to secure victory. For all that, the three observers from Zaragoza will have gained almost nothing from their viewing. The home side even seemed to shake hands carefully at full-time.

With Stefan Schwarz and Martin Keown being rested, the balance the Arsenal players had to strike was that between looking sharp and avoiding anything too risky. David Seaman, however, was obliged to jump in twice to prevent Arsenal conceding an early goal.

Paul Merson and Glenn Helder were the brightest performers for Arsenal, but their touch and vision was devalued by the overall practice-match feel of the occasion. Wimbledon, with nine first-team members missing, were pretty much content to keep a clean sheet.

If Ian Wright had been at his predatory best, they should not have done. But he missed three reasonable opportunities, and provided the only moment of real drama nine minutes before half-time, when he chased a lost cause of a ball which was going towards the Wimbledon keeper, Neil Sullivan, who caught him as he flew in.

Wright lay clutching his leg for a while, then hopped off. But Highbury breathed again within a minute as Wright, albeit gingerly, returned to the field. Why does Wright do these things? Why, especially, does he do these things on the eve of a European final? The irrationality is part of the irresistibility. Three minutes after the break, Wright was down again, this time felled from behind by Chris Perry, who was belatedly booked.

Helder, producing a series of entertaining touches and flourishes, continued where he had left off after the break, and after 55 minutes his instant, floated pass sent Merson clear. But after killing the ball dead on his boot, Merson's shot on the turn was disappointingly tame. It seemed a highly appropriate piece of action.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Linighan, Adams, Winterburn; Merson, Parlour, Jensen, Helder; Hartson (Kiwomya, 80), Wright. Substitutes not used: Morrow, Bartram (gk).

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Reeves, Kimble; Barton, Jones, Elkins, Leonhardsen (Fear, 59); Goodman, Holdsworth (Clarke, 73). Substitute not used: Segers (gk).

Referee: R Gifford (Mid Glamorgan).

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