TWO GOALS from Dennis Bergkamp and Nwankwo Kanu's second in successive games, all coming in a hectic final seven minutes of the match, hoisted Arsenal up to second place in the Premiership last night, four points behind Manchester United.
The runaway train that Arsenal have begun to resemble in recent weeks was slowed by a spirited Sheffield Wednesday. They withstood an onslaught that grew heavier and heavier as the second half progressed, but almost inevitably the portals were breached and Arsenal went rushing through.
Arsene Wenger has now seen his Arsenal side take 27 points from a possible 33 in a run similar to that which eventually took them to the title last season. "Don't leave early at the moment," he said. "I thought we tried everything but they frustrated us and [Pavel] Srnicek was outstanding. But near the end they got tired and our resilience had an impact."
Asked who he felt were now favourites for the championship following the assertion by Manchester United's manager, Alex Ferguson, at the weekend that Arsenal were the best bet, Wenger replied: "Manchester United of course," with a smile on his face, adding: "At the moment they are four points ahead with a better goal difference - that's five points."
Wednesday were one of only three teams to have beaten the champions in the League this season. Their victory at Hillsborough in September was of course overshadowed by Paolo Di Canio's push on referee Paul Alcock following the player's sending-off, but neither man was in attendance last night.
For Arsenal, the loss of Stephen Hughes, who broke his arm during the FA Cup victory over Derby County at the weekend, was offset by the reappearance Patrick Vieira after suspension, and though the Swede Fredrik Ljungberg replaced Emmanuel Petit in midfield there was a place on the bench for the French World Cup winner, who has been struggling with an ankle injury. Wednesday made no changes to the team that had lost to Wimbledon five days earlier, so Srnicek stayed in goal.
It was always likely to be a busy evening for the Czech No 1 and it was his error that very nearly gave Arsenal a 12th-minute lead. Nicolas Anelka had already threatened to expose Wednesday with his speed, running on to a fine through ball from Ray Parlour. Now, Tony Adams made a masterly interception near half-way and played the youngster through. Srnicek, first to the ball, fumbled it but Anelka allowed Emerson Thome to block on the line.
Arsenal's form of late had been formidable but Wednesday, last week's lapse apart, have been in pretty good nick themselves and it showed early on as they passed the ball around confidently. Indeed another goalkeeping error, this time from England's No 1, David Seaman, might have presented them with some tangible reward after 20 minutes when his clearance rebounded off Martin Keown straight to Petter Rudi, who might have done better than to shoot just wide.
The international goalkeepers' union was at least partially redeemed before the break before Srnicek's fingertips denied Dennis Bergkamp whose low shot after muscling his way past Danny Sonner looked destined for the far corner of the net.
By and large, though, Arsenal had struggled to achieve any rhythm and it was not surprising that Wenger introduced Kaba Diawara at half-time. The French winger injected urgency into Arsenal's play and he came close to breaking the deadlock within minutes. At the end of a driving run he picked out Bergkamp who laid the ball back to him via Vieira but Diawara's shot cannoned off the post.
Before long, Kanu and Petit had come on as Arsenal stepped up the pressure. Srnicek twice thwarted Diawara and pulled off an even better save from a Bergkamp free-kick, while Petit flashed a volley inches wide.
Then, with time running out, Petit's quick free-kick found Bergkamp unmarked in the area, leaving him with a simple finish and at last Srnicek was beaten. Kanu's second for Arsenal's and Bergkamp's own second, both made by Overmars on the break, was scarcely what Wednesday deserved but once again, there was just no holding the Gunners.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Vivas; Ljungberg (Diawara, h-t), Parlour (Petit, 70), Vieira, Overmars; Bergkamp, Anelka (Kanu, 62). Substitutes not used: Grimandi, Manninger (gk).
Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Srnicek; Atherton, Thome, Walker, Hinchcliffe; Alexandersson, Jonk, Sonner, Rudi; Carbone, Booth. Substitutes not used: Newsome, Humphreys, Briscoe, Stefanovic, Clarke (gk).
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow, Middx).
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