Football: Anelka applies the pressure

Coventry City 0 Arsenal 1 Anelka 63 Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 23,040
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The Independent Online
GORDON STRACHAN spoke for a mere 30 seconds, praised his players for their commitment, then drifted off into the damp darkness, his team thrust further into the mire of a relegation dogfight.

The brevity of the Coventry manager's appearance after yesterday's defeat by Arsenal was, in a sense, understandable. On Hallowe'en afternoon, it had been a nightmare few hours for everyone at Coventry. Strachan had asked his team for more effort after the midweek Worthington Cup defeat at Luton, and had got it. This time, they were simply beaten by a better side. Strachan admitted as much and could do nothing to change it.

Yet there was another reason for his economy of words. Coventry's usually fiery Scottish manager wanted the world to know that something had happened that was far more important than a football match.

The accidental death of a Coventry security official before the game cast a dark shadow over a day that was already depressingly grey overhead. "It's been a stressful day because a friend of ours died," said Strachan. "But I could not have asked for any more from my players. If they keep doing that, I'll be a very proud manager."

The middle-aged Highfield Road gateman suffered fatal head injuries after being crushed against railings by the Arsenal team coach as it reversed into the King Richard entrance around an hour before kick-off. He was treated on the spot and rushed to hospital but died at 3pm.

Arsene Wenger, too, was unable to concentrate solely on the three points that made it three wins on the trot for the champions and must put them in excellent heart for Wednesday's crucial Champions' League game in Kiev.

"It was a good result but a sad day," said Wenger. "What happened was terrible. The players knew about it but did not know that the man had died. Before the game we didn't have our heart in it."

Credit, then, to both teams for putting on a robust Premiership match that was highly important for each of them at opposite ends of the table.

Nicolas Anelka won the game after 63 minutes with his fifth league goal of the season but he will never have an easier chance to score. With Coventry for once enjoying a brief period of sustained attacking, Marc Overmars counter-attacked down the right, ran almost half the length of the pitch, skipped past Roland Nilsson and fired in a shot which Magnus Hedman could only parry. The ball broke loose to Anelka for a simple tap- in from five yards.

On the balance of play, it was no less than Arsenal deserved. In a game of few clear-cut scoring chances, Coventry closed down the champions but in doing so created little of their own, apart from the occasional attacking flurry.

Without their two most influential players, Tony Adams and Dennis Bergkamp, both out with back injuries - a decision on whether Adams goes to Kiev will be made today - Arsenal put on a workmanlike display with Steve Bould and their new Swedish signing Fredrick Ljungberg coming into the side. But for all their possession, they lacked penetration in the last third of the field.

Wenger said Anelka will not be intimidated about leading the line in Kiev on Wednesday in the absence of Bergkamp who would not have travelled anyway because of his fear of flying. "Nicolas is surprisingly strong when he's under big pressure," said the Arsenal manager, who should be more concerned about getting Adams fit if the Ukrainians play anything like as well as they did at Wembley.

As for Coventry, they lacked Dion Dublin, who was fined two weeks wages, an estimated pounds 40,000, before the game and was, understandably, nowhere to be seen. Strachan thought he had a ready-made replacement in Nathan Blake but he went to Blackburn when Dublin rejected them.

Coventry have still won only twice this season when many thought they might mount a strong challenge after the relative success of last term. Strachan is a renowned fighter but he will need all of his battle cries to get his team out of the present mess. "We will need to dig deep between now and Christmas," he said in his programme notes. Strachan added that the setback at Second Division Luton was the worst experience of his managerial career and apologised to the fans.

Yesterday they responded with plenty of spirit and endeavour but were reduced to a series of half-chances, foiled numerous times by Arsenal's well-worked offside trap and a defence marshalled superbly by Martin Keown in Adams' absence.

Perhaps the fates always dictated that the home team would get nothing out of the match. Arsenal had failed to win here only once in their previous nine visits. Even more ominously, Coventry had failed to score in six of them.

Another player was adjudged to have dived in the box yesterday looking for a penalty. This time it was Ljungberg, who was booked by referee Uriah Rennie. Wenger thought his player was unlucky to be cautioned. Which presumably means he thought Arsenal should have had a spot-kick.