Football: Arsenal dealt Hamann blow

Newcastle United 1 Arsenal 1
WHEN NEWCASTLE escaped from Highbury with a merciful 3-0 defeat five months ago Ruud Gullit pledged to go through his team "with a battering ram". For three-quarters of an hour at St James' Park yesterday Arsenal required a minimum of force to leave the Dutchman's rebuilt team on the floor.

The case for Gullit's defence lay in tatters, the dithering of Nicos Dabizas and Steve Howey having presented the Gunners with more shots than the 36th minute one with which Nicolas Anelka hit the bull's-eye. Fortunately for the Newcastle manager, though, the shortcomings on view were not restricted to his own side.

Instead of going for the jugular, Arsenal sat back after the break. Placing the emphasis on the protection of their lead, they paid for their caution with two dropped points when Dietmar Hamann struck with an inspirational flash after 78 minutes.

Sidestepping Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn and Martin Keown on the right angle of the Arsenal box, Germany's midfielder beat David Seaman with a shot hit with the outside of his right foot. It left the title holders seven points off pole position in the Premiership, albeit still with a game in hand of Manchester United and without the distraction of Europe.

"The problem now is we can afford less mistakes than the others," Arsene Wenger lamented. "In the second half we just didn't come out enough. We made the mistake of trying to get through with a 1-0."

Gullit was simply relieved that his Magpies avoided a wing-clipping. While Arsene and Arsenal pursue the defence of their Double, Newcastle's season hinges on their fate against Everton in the sixth round of the FA Cup at St James' next Sunday and their home guard can ill afford to be so doddering - even against such a soft touch of an attacking force as the Toffeemen happen to be.

Gullit resisted the temptation to blood his latest acquisition yesterday, swayed by the match fitness Silvio Maric lost in the month he spent waiting for his work permit to be rubber stamped.

The Toon Army will have to wait to discover whether the Croatian midfielder is a Maric truly made in heaven - or more like Hebburn - but their spirits were raised by the sight of Alan Shearer in the Newcastle starting line- up.

Recovered from a midweek dose of flu, the England captain resumed his forward-line leading duties alongside Louis Saha, who could hardly have come closer to giving the Magpies a flying start. With less than two minutes on the clock, Hamann released Laurent Charvet on the right and the full- back's ball to the near post was whipped first-time into the side-netting by his on-loan compatriot.

It did not take long for the Gallic contingent on the field to be reduced from six to five. Arsenal were already missing a little something in midfield, with Emmanuel Petit on the injured list, and from the fourth minute they were without his replacement, Remi Guard, courtesy of a mis-timed challenge by Nolberto Solano.

It was the lack of timing in the Newcastle defence, though, that tipped the balance of play in Arsenal's favour. They might have profited from it in the 17th minute had Dennis Bergkamp fed the ball to a more striking finisher than Tony Adams when Howey and Didier Domi made a dithering mess of what ought to have been simple clearance duties.

With only Shay Given to beat, the Arsenal captain stubbed his toe and the ball bobbled wide. Not that the finishing touch of Shearer was any more assured when Newcastle broke on the counter-attack in the 28th minute.

To be fair to the England captain, he did have to stretch to connect with Solano's invitation ball across the Arsenal goalmouth, but Newcastle could ill afford to see his shot thud off David Seaman's right-hand post. That much was made painfully clear to them when Howey and Dabizas conspired to let in Anelka eight minutes later.

The former conceded possession to Bergkamp in midfield and the latter produced an air shot in attempting to block the through ball that followed. It left Anelka with only Given to beat and the teenager confidently dragged the ball round him with his right foot before firing his 14th goal of the season with his left foot.

Dropping deep to continue the theme (if not the sublime class) of his tour de force against Leicester, the orchestrating Bergkamp put Arsenal in control. He would have put them two goals ahead before the break, too, had the thundering volley he dispatched towards the Gallowgate End goal not struck Gary Speed and deflected wide.

Goals: Anelka (36) 1-0; Hamann (78) 1-1. Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Charvet, Dabizas, Howey, Domi; Solano (Ketsbaia, 60), Hamann, Speed, Brady (Lee, 60); Shearer, Saha. Substitutes not used: Barton, Griffin, Harper (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Vivas, Adams, Keown, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Garde (Hughes, 4), Overmars (Upson, 85); Anelka, Bergkamp. Substitutes not used: Kanu, Diawara, Manninger (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Bookings: Newcastle: Hamann, Dabizas. Arsenal: Overmars, Bergkamp.

Man of the match: Bergkamp.

Attendance: 36,708.