Football: Arsenal advantage as Wright strikes

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The Independent Online
Paris St-Germain. . .1

Arsenal. . . . . . . 1

Ian Wright had not expected to play at Parc des Princes last night, but the peerless poacher's 32nd goal of another prolific season took Arsenal a measured stride closer to their first European final since Terry Neill's Gunners found themselves firing blanks in a penalty shoot-out with Valencia 14 years ago.

The header Wright buried after 35 minutes was equalised in the second half by David Ginola, but the away goal must make London's pride firm favourites to progress from the home leg of this Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final in two weeks' time.

Arsenal arrived home in the early hours well satisfied with a job well done - and rightly so. This was another wholly admirable performance from a team who are doing England proud with intelligence and purposeful football played with a bristling spirit, epitomised by Tony Adams' dreadnought defence and the indefatigable battling of John Jensen in midfield.

The dual-purpose amphitheatre, which saw Rob Andrew kick England's rugby union team to a notable victory a month ago, witnessed another impressive demonstration of the good old Anglo-Saxon virtues of discipline and strength.

Arsenal had made no secret of their game plan, which was to keep it tight and leave the winning of the tie to Highbury. In fact, they did rather better than that, taking the game to the French League leaders when the force was with them, and creating an equal share of the scoring opportunities. The Parisians were more enterprising than Torino had been in the quarter-finals, having come to the tie with a swaggering confidence rooted in an unbeaten sequence of 35 League and Cup games since 15 August.

Arsenal were respectful but by no means intimidated, drawing strength from a renowned defence which has regained much of its old meanness during their own resurgent run. Fully recovered from their FA Cup embarrassment by Bolton Wanderers, they have not lost in the Premiership in 13 matches. George Graham sprang a tactical surprise by including Wright in a fluid formation which changed from 4-5-1 to 4-3-3, with Wright and Paul Merson supporting Alan Smith, when Arsenal had possession. Graham's deployment proved to be a master stroke, with Wright's tireless running of major significance.

PSG's assertive start, however, had Arsenal under early pressure. Ginola, France's footballer of the year, wasted no time in announcing himself, tricking his way past Lee Dixon and Adams on the left before firing in a testing cross which Steve Bould did well to block. It was a vital interception, but not enough to clear the danger, and Patrick Colleter fastened onto the loose ball to shoot uncomfortably close to David Seaman's left-hand post. Typically, Arsenal steadied themselves and beavered their way into profit.

We might have had the lead from an unlikely source, midway through the first half, when Jensen, whose lack of goals is legendary, let fly from the edge of the D only to be foiled by a flying save from Bernard Lama.

The reprieve was only temporary. When it came, the Arsenal goal was a master class in finishing, Wright getting in front of his marker near the penalty spot to head a Paul Davis free-kick just inside the far post.

The hero turned crestfallen culprit when he lost possession to Valdo in a dangerous position on the Arsenal left and was much relieved to see Adams' towering header deny George Weah at the near post. Nigel Winterburn booted Ricardo's header off the line, but after 50 minutes it was 1-1 and the initiative had changed hands. Important lessons had not been learned, and a repeat of the corner routine with which Valdo had supplied Ricardo saw Ginola beat Seaman with a routine nod at the near post.

The French were pouring forward now but Arsenal took a deep breath and first stemmed the tide, then turned it. Smith and Merson demanded saves from Lama and Wright spurned an inviting chance by miscueing with the goal at his mercy.

Arsenal's was the strongest finish, theirs is the psychological advantage going into the return. Their only cause for concern was two more bookings, for Merson and Adams, which leaves no fewer than eight players with a caution, and just one more away from suspension. It was not enough to spoil the champagne.

Paris St-Germain: (4-5-1): Lama, Llacer (Bravo, h/t), Sassus, Ricardo, Colleter; Le Guen, Fournier, Guerin, Valdo, Ginola; Weah.

Arsenal: (4-4-1-1): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Selley, Jensen, Davis (Keown, 85), Merson; Wright; Smith (Campbell, 85).

Referee: L Sundell (Sweden).

(Photograph omitted)