Football: Anelka hots up the chase

Arsenal 3 Anelka 41, 64, Vieira 72 Newcastle 1 Barton 79 Atten dance: 38,102
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LE JOUR DE GLOIRE has not yet arrived but it looks as if it might be approaching for Arsenal, either in the Premiership or the FA Cup or conceivably even both, after this victory made in France over dismal opponents who have now been suddenly sucked deeper into relegation trouble.

Two goals by Nicolas Anelka and a screamer by Patrick Vieira were more than enough to see off a Newcastle side who will need to improve considerably not to embarrass themselves similarly when the two sides meet again in the FA Cup final in five weeks' time. They also took Arsenal to within four points of Manchester United with three matches still in hand.

A late driven goal by Warren Barton, ending Arsenal's admirable record of consecutive clean sheets at eight matches and more than 13 hours, was hardly consolation for Newcastle. They have gone eight league matches without a win and tomorrow's game against a revitalised Barnsley at St James' Park assumes enormous importance.

Arsenal, too, play a big game tomorrow when they go to Blackburn with Dennis Bergkamp back after suspension to strengthen them. They are assuming an awesome aspect and their manager Arsene Wenger points out that almost all of his players have had a break, through injury or suspension, and are coming back at the same time.

"We have many experienced players and they know it is in our hands," he said. "But we can only be successful if we concentrate on our own performances. Psychologically I don't know how this will go down in Manchester. I am only concerned with improving my own team's performance."

Kenny Dalglish was at his most curmudgeonly afterwards. "We were in possession three times and gave them three goals," the Newcastle manager lamented. He also believed that his team should have had a penalty, at 1-0 down when Barton went down as Steve Bould slid in but was booked for diving instead. "It was a penalty and that comes from Arsenal, not us," he said. Wenger denied it. "It looked to me that he dived but I might have said something else if I was on the other bench."

Dalglish also agreed with the theory put to him from this quarter that David Seaman might have been sent off deliberately denying a goalscoring opportunity by handling a back-pass from Bould as he stumbled and Alan Shearer closed in on the chance. "If a defender had picked the ball up he would have been punished," said Dalglish.

It was the game's first chance after a tentative opening 20 minutes. The free-kick was seven yards out and central and Arsenal positioned all 11 on the goal-line. Barton touched the ball back to Alan Shearer but Arsenal were quickly out to block the shot. "It was the turning point," said Wenger. "If they had got the first goal it would have been very difficult for us."

Not long after the industrious, wholehearted Christopher Wreh combined with Emmanuel Petit to send in Anelka, to whom Stuart Pearce had conceded too much space, for a low driven shot into Given's right corner

Newcastle showed more ambition in the second half, with Barton pushed up in support of a badly served Shearer, and it almost paid off immediately when John Barnes headed Barton clear. He should have concentrated on shooting instead of winning a penalty.

More punishment soon followed for a miffed Newcastle. Petit sent Ray Parlour racing clear of Pearce and David Batty on the right and his low cross was met by Anelka at the far post, and he slid the ball home. His 21-year-old compatriot Vieira - again the game's outstanding influence in midfield - did his best to upstage him by surging forward soon afterwards from midfield and hitting a right-footed shot that fairly flew into Given's top right corner. Arsenal were rampant and their eighth win in nine unbeaten games was confirmed.

When Barton finished well by firing a half-volley into the roof of Seaman's net after Bould had failed to cut out Albert's long ball, it was but a token reply. This was not the Newcastle who beat Barcelona last September. A caution has overwhelmed the expressiveness that Tino Asprilla embodied that night.

Arsenal themselves are now all but certain to play in the Champions' League next season, which would actually mean Newcastle going into the Cup-Winners' Cup, as Dalglish pointed out. The next question - next instalment tomorrow - is whether it is as Premiership winners or runners-up.