Football: Arsenal 2 Leicester City 1 - Arsenal are of a mind to succeed

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The Independent Online
CONSISTENCY AND luck received a mention but the quality Arsene Wenger stressed, when asked on Saturday what it would take to win the title, was "mental strength".

The truth of that had been obvious when the final whistle blew on the efforts of Arsenal and Leicester. While Highbury exploded in joy Lee Dixon and Emmanuel Petit punched the air in delight while their vanquished opponents crumpled to the turf around them.

The nature of the game's denouement, an injury-time own goal, was a factor, but the extreme nature of these reactions, more in keeping with a championship run-in than an opening-day skirmish, underlined the intensity of the modern Premiership.

With overwhelming hype and hyper-inflationary wages has come an all-consuming need to succeed. Having won the championship by a point two years ago, then lost it by the same margin last season, Arsenal know each and every one is vital. "Had we lost today," added Wenger - and it seemed possible when Leicester led after an hour - "we would have gone to Derby thinking we must get three points to make up for the ones we had dropped. Sometimes that approach results in another loss."

Instead they would be reasonably content with a draw at Pride Park on Tuesday, though Wenger added that avoiding defeat was only half the equation - converting draws into wins was just as important. "Last year Chelsea only lost three times, we lost four, but we won more matches."

While Saturday's victory was only narrowly, and fortuitously, achieved Arsenal did enough beforehand to suggest they are better equipped to win such matches this year than last.

Nicolas Anelka may have gone but Davor Suker will soon be in place to take up his finishing role while the arrival of Thierry Henry, and the further integration of Nwanko Kanu, has added to their attacking possibilities. The pace of Henry and Marc Overmars, both of whom came off the bench, allied to the vision of Dennis Bergkamp and Kanu, created an abundance of chances which should have seen the match settled long before Frank Sinclair's errant header.

"They were not devoid of options last year but they have even more this time," said an envious Martin O'Neill, the Leicester manager. "They have such strength in depth."

"We needed the experience in the box of Suker [who is awaiting a work permit and match-fitness] but even without him we were much more dangerous with Henry on and Overmars on the flanks," agreed Wenger.

Quite how the Arsenal manager is going to fit all these players into one side is another matter. On the evidence of Saturday Ray Parlour's days of being an automatic 90-minute selection may be over while the only English forward in Arsenal's multi-national squad looks set for another wasted season.

Paolo Vernazza may sound like one of Wenger's foreign recruits but he is actually a 19-year-old Islington-born England youth international. However, he has made three appearances in two seasons and, like the teenaged goalkeeper Stuart Taylor, may have to settle for the Worthington Cup this time out.

Taylor has trained with the full England squad and is so highly regarded two newspapers selected him in goal for their pre-season "youngsters- to-watch" feature. This, however, may say more about the absence of young English goalkeepers than his chances of making a breakthrough. Even with David Seaman injured he could not even find his way onto the bench, the 38-year-old John Lukic being preferred as cover for Alex Manninger.

The intensity of the Premiership, and the need for club-cum-businesses the size of Arsenal to win trophies, is one reason for Wenger's reluctance to risk youth. Only in extremis is a youngster going to get a run in the team - Gilles Grimandi, rather than Matthew Upson, an England Under-21 regular, replaced the injured Tony Adams. The club may have spent millions on their development programme, and have put Liam Brady and Don Howe in charge of it, but Wenger's priority is the next three points.

For a while at Highbury it looked as if Leicester, using 13 players from the United Kingdom, were going to strike a blow for Britain and take Saturday's quota.

Despite the loss of Steve Walsh and Emile Heskey to nasty-looking injuries they defended with resolution and organisation before breaking out to take a shock lead. Quick thinking by Neil Lennon capitalised on a mistake by Grimandi to release Steve Guppy on the left. His first cross of the match was also its best, allowing Tony Cottee a tap-in at the far post.

Arsenal were stunned but quickly recovered their poise. With Bergkamp in effervescent form they swarmed forward and sheer weight of pressure forced mistakes. First Gerry Taggart, trying to clear Martin Keown's long ball to Henry, headed into Bergkamp's path. The finish was immaculate.

Then, after Andy Impey had cleared off the line from Grimandi, and Tim Flowers athletically denied Bergkamp, Sinclair, rising to clear Henry's header from Petit's corner, diverted the ball into his own net.

Leicester were left to count their bruises which, thankfully, were not as serious as first thought. Walsh, having ripped a groin rather than ligaments, will be out for several weeks while Heskey, who went to hospital in a neck brace, is shaken but has nothing broken.

"It would be a huge blow if he was out for a long time," said O'Neill of his centre-forward. "We could not replace him. Newcastle have just spent pounds 6m on a player [Kieron Dyer] who has never kicked a ball in the Premiership but we would have to get five players in for that. But it's no use moaning, I know it is going to be a long hard season, but I'm still enthusiastic."

So is everyone else but, with 280 days dealing with those twin imposters of triumph and despair to go, what condition will we be in when the Premiership finishes on 14 May? Either feverish excitement or catatonic paralysis if Saturday's events, from St James' Park to Stamford Bridge, are anything to go by.

Goals: Cottee (56) 0-1; Bergkamp (65) 1-1; Sinclair (90 og) 2-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Grimandi, Winterburn; Parlour (Overmars, 64); Vieira, Petit, Ljungberg (Henry, h-t); Kanu, Bergkamp (Silvinho, 90). Substitutes not used: Upson, Lukic (gk).

Leicester City (5-3-2): Flowers; Impey, Sinclair, Elliott, Walsh (Taggart, 19), Guppy; Izzet, Lennon, Savage; Cottee, Heskey (Marshall, 44). Substitutes not used: Arphexad (gk), Oakes, Zagorakis.

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street). Bookings: Arsenal: Grimandi, Silvinho. Leicester City: Elliott, Sinclair.

Man of the match: Bergkamp.

Attendance: 38,026.