Arsenal unable to cash in

Football: Sheffield Wednesday 0 Arsenal 0
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The Independent Online
Arsenal surveyed the mess made by most of the Premiership leaders of the Boxing Day matches and then slipped up themselves. Given a chance to go within a point of the top, they failed to grasp it at Hillsborough.

In a game that was a Christmas cracker only in that it became more disappointing the closer you looked into it, the Gunners faded rather than rose and in the end had to be grateful that Benito Carbone pulled a late chance wide. Instead of making ground on the leaders, Liverpool, they ended the day as far away as they began.

"That's the first time this season we have been in awe of the opposition," David Pleat, the Wednesday manager, said. "I thought we improved when Regi Blinker came on but we weren't good enough to break them down. It's a measure of the improvement we've made that the players are disappointed."

Boxing Day nights are traditionally for drowning sorrows or toasting success. Playing never used to be on the agenda before Sky came on the scene and the prospect did not fill Arsene Wenger with relish. "It's just not right," the Arsenal manager said, fearing his side might suffer a reaction tomorrow because of shorter recuperation time.

An amount of ill-will lingered from the teams' first meeting in September, which Arsenal won 4-1, and that was apparent when Nigel Winterburn was booed at his first touch. All very petty, but, to be honest, the Wednesday fans were given little reason to get excited by a first half that reached a poverty that was as profound as the temperature was cold.

What there was to warm the imagination, if not the body, came from Dennis Bergkamp. While others looked hurried, the Dutchman sailed through the game with serenity.

After 14 minutes, he fired just over after Ray Parlour, replacing Lee Dixon as the right wing-back, had wriggled down to the by-line and pulled the ball back, but it required another six minutes for the full unveiling of the Arsenal striker's art.

A long cross from Parlour had two Wednesday defenders bracing themselves for a shot, an impression reinforced by Bergkamp's slight dip of his shoulder. Instead of an attempt on goal, however, his volley with the outside of his right foot laid the ball on a silver plate for David Platt - who sent the ball lamely high.

Wednesday's attack had been all but anonymous until this point - Carbone's shot straight at John Lukic a rare exception - but just after the interval there was a run that took one back to the days when David Hirst and injury were not the most commonly joined words in football.

The Wednesday striker skipped round Tony Adams and deceived another defender before being brought crudely to the earth by Martin Keown. He escaped a booking, but his colleagues did not elude a further test of their famed obduracy, this time from Guy Whittingham's shot after Hirst had temporarily caused confusion with an attempted overhead kick. With an air of someone who had done it many times before, Steve Bould got in the way to block the effort.

Little had been seen, too, of Wright, who had scored a hat-trick in the first game, but he almost changed that as he scampered after Parlour's cross after 55 minutes. Only Ian Nolan's hoof into the crowd denied him.

On the hour, Arsenal almost broke the deadlock. Paul Shaw crossed and Bergkamp rose to head past Kevin Pressman. Imperious in style, it was just out in terms of execution and the ball thumped against the post before bouncing clear.

Arsenal's chance had gone and with it an opportunity to steal a march on others with title ambitions. Only Manchester United managed that yesterday.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Pressman; Nolan, Walker, Stefanovic, Nicol; Whittingham, Oakes (Blinker, 56), Atherton, Pembridge; Carbone, Hirst (Booth, 77). Substitutes not used: Clarke (gk), Humphreys, Trustfull.

Arsenal (5-3-2): Lukic; Parlour, Keown, (Marshall, 90) Adams, Bould, Wnterburn, Merson, Garde, Platt (Shaw, h-t), Bergkamp, Wright. Substitutes not used: Linighan, Bartram (gk), Hartson.

Referee: R Dilkes (Mossley).