Football: Anelka rescues shaky Arsenal

Premiership: Arsenal 1 Middlesbrough 1: Late goal earns point for champions while Manchester United struggle to subdue spirited opponents
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THE CELEBRATIONS told the tale. Rarely can champions have greeted a last-minute home draw against a newly-promoted team with such joy. As those supporters who had not already turned their back on last year's heroes exulted, the Arsenal players held their arms aloft in supplication.

Since Nicolas Anelka's equaliser at Highbury yesterday was their first goal for seven minutes shy of six hours the relief was understandable.

However, it still left Arsenal without a win in six matches, the best results of which have been two home draws. Even so, they move up to fourth.

Middlesbrough, denied their first victory at Highbury since the war, left the pitch in despair but they had more to be proud of. Organized and determined they had deserved to win even though they spent most of the last hour in defence. They still move up to sixth.

"It is a measure of how far we've come that I've a squad of players who are disappointed at getting a point at Arsenal," Bryan Robson said. "They were pushing players forward and we should have punished them. We could have killed them off and we need to work on our counter-attacking."

Robson felt Gascoigne's departure, after an hour, had been a factor in Arsenal's eventual domination of possession and added: "He's not trained Sunday, Monday and Tuesday because he was having treatment and had also taken a couple of knocks. He did well and his fitness is improving."

Gascoigne, whose treatment relates to his alcohol problem, was playing his first match against Arsenal since the 1991 FA Cup semi-final when his memorable goal from a 35-yard free-kick helped Tottenham to victory. He did nothing as dramatic yesterday but dovetailed neatly with Robbie Mustoe and Andy Townsend in a disciplined Boro midfield.

Then fatigue set in, he reduced his sphere of influence to the centre circle and was found wanting for pace when booked for a late tackle. Shortly afterwards Robson withdrew him. It was, nevertheless, a promising display even though the booking, his eighth of the season, could rule him out of next month's trip to Old Trafford.

Boro, too, are looking much healthier after traumatic previous experiences at this level. They had begun brightly, as befits a team on the rise, and their confidence contrasted sharply with Arsenal's lack of belief.

The gulf inevitably widened after Boro scored. Townsend, sporting an unfeasibly dark and glossy mane, and the relatively trim Gascoigne combined to release Dean Gordon on the left. His low cross was comfortably tucked in by Brian Deane.

Had Deane converted an even better chance 10 minutes later the contest would have been settled but Arsenal perked up and Middlesbrough gradually pulled back the wagons and invited them on. With Boro guarding the area in numbers, most of the attacks either foundered or ended in 20-yard pot shots, none of which were strong enough, or accurate enough, to trouble a goalkeeper as large and agile as Mark Schwarzer. Instead it was Boro who carved out the best chance, Gordon crossing from the left after 71 minutes, only for Mikkel Beck to head wide from six yards.

Wenger brought on Luis Boa Morte and Fabian Caballero, a young striker of mixed Spanish-Argentine-Paraguayan nationality, and pushed Marc Overmars and Steve Bould into attack. It seemed to no avail and the increasingly restless crowd began leaving by their thousands when Remi Garde put successive shots high into the North Bank. Then he got another chance and, this time, chipped forward, Bould's faint touch carried to Anelka who scored off the bar.

"We didn't deserve to lose because we showed character," Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said. "I'm pleased for Anelka, he has had criticism but he showed he fights."

Anelka was not the only player jeered by a support with short memories and Wenger added: "Maybe we gave them too much last year, when you are used to caviar it is difficult to go back to sausages."

Goals: Deane (6) 0-1; Anelka (90) 1-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Bould, Winterburn (Vivas, 27); Ljungberg (Caballero, 75), Parlour, Garde, Overmars; Anelka, Wreh (Boa Morte, 63). Substitutes not used: Grimandi, Manninger (gk).

Middlebrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Cooper, Vickers, Pallister; Fleming, Mustoe, Gascoigne (Maddison, 66), Townsend, Gordon; Deane (Summerbell, 90), Ricard (Beck, 60).

Substitutes not used: Baker, Beresford (gk).

Referee: G Barber (Tring).

Bookings: Arsenal: Bould, Garde. Middlesbrough: Cooper, Gascoigne.

Man of the match: Mustoe.

Attendance: 38,075.