Football: A lack of focus costs Arsenal

Wimbledon 1 Arsenal 0
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The Independent Online
"IT'S JUST like going to Wembley," one Arsenal fan observed sardonically to another as they squeezed into a packed train en route to an uncertain afternoon in south London.

In that the Gunners did not win he turned out to be right, but the remark revealed that the Double winners' thoughts had wandered from this difficult London derby to Wednesday's crucial Champions' League fixture. For 90 minutes Arsenal lived life through a Lens, so to speak, with half an eye on Europe - a lack of focus which was to cost them the match.

"Our aggression was not good enough, but especially in midfield and up front," their manager, Arsene Wenger, said afterwards. "They won more fights than us. Instead of quick passing we started to run the ball and we didn't look dangerous enough up front." While Wenger was wise to reduce the average age of his thirtysomething playing staff sooner rather than later, the qualities he missed are possessed in abundance by a certain chat-show host and ex-Gunners striker currently performing in East London.

While the lightning-paced Nicolas Anelka might eventually match Wright's achievements, the 19-year-old's performance on Saturday was fitful. Arsenal have scored 14 times in as many games this season, and the fact that it was their full-back Dixon who came closest is a cause for concern, his fine left-footed drive striking the bar early in the second half.

A hamstring injury to the pivotal Patrick Vieira and the pre-cautionary substitution of Dennis Bergkamp with a slight calf strain showed how limited Wenger's European options could be. Of their deputies, Christopher Wreh looked pedestrian while Stephen Hughes was eager but unremarkable.

"He looked the sharpest I'd seen him since the start of the season," Wenger remarked of his Dutch striker. Ironically it was Bergkamp's deft back-heel into the path of Vieira which led to the Frenchman's withdrawal, his gleeful lollop up field interrupted by an untimely twang of his right hamstring.

As for Wimbledon, well, they keep doing what they do best. Ever the pragmatist, Kinnear described the gap between his team and the relegation zone as a "hefty cushion", one which was plumped up to a comfortable 11 points after this victory. The strange sight of full rows of people filling a normally half-empty Selhurst seemed to spur on the home team, coupled with their pique at last week's tame capitulation to Chelsea.

"The problem with a full house," Kinnear noted wryly, "is that 16 or 17 thousand of them are Arsenal fans. But we need the revenue."

Before the game Marcus Gayle had spoken of the need to exploit the "tired legs" in the visitors' ageing defence, so it was ironic that his own removal should hasten the winning goal. Following a shrewd double substitution of two- thirds of the Wimbledon attack, they were ahead within four minutes.

A slick piece of trickery from Michael Hughes proved too clever by half for Dixon and Parlour and took the Northern Ireland international between his markers and to the byline. His fierce cross was palmed out by Seaman onto the arm of the onrushing Earle - the ball flying through the flurry of bodies too swiftly for either official to notice - before dropping for Ekoku who blasted the ball into the net from all of 18 inches.

Goals: Ekoku (77) 1-0

Wimbledon (4-3-3): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell, Thatcher; Earle, M Hughes, Euell; Leaburn, Ainsworth (Ardley 73), Gayle (Ekoku 73). Substitutes not used: Heald, Kimble, Roberts

Arsenal (4-4-2) Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Keown, Winterburn; Vieira (S Hughes, 20), Parlour, Petit, Overmars (Ljungberg 72); Bergkamp (Wreh 37), Anelka Substitutes not used: Bould, Manninger

Referee: M Riley (Leeds).

Bookings: Wimbledon Leaburn, Perry, Thatcher; Arsenal Adams, Winterburn.

Man of the match: Michael Hughes.

Attendance 26,003.