Football: Arsenal rise but Vieira falls again

Charlton Athletic 0 Arsenal 1
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ARSENAL ENDED 1988 much as they spent it, winning matches and losing players. Going off yesterday were Dennis Bergkamp and Nigel Winterburn with injuries and Patrick Vieira with a red card for violent conduct. After this trio of departures, the champions took a lead and held it. Plus ca change.

Vieira's dismissal, his fourth with the Gunners including a pre-season friendly, was for striking out at Neil Redfearn with his elbow. Arsene Wenger, not for the first time, claimed not to have seen the incident.

It was Vieira's second dismissal of the season and Arsenal's sixth. In 27 months under Wenger they have had 18 red cards, plus Vieira's "friendly" indiscretion. They also won a Uefa Cup place in Wenger's first season, the championship and FA Cup in his second, and are third in the Premiership this morning. Crime, it seems, does pay.

Not that the foul play was all one way. Charlton incurred the bulk of the cautions and ought to have suffered a dismissal when Eddie Youds clattered into Bergkamp from behind shortly before the break. Uriah Rennie, who had an indifferent match, settled for a booking. Since Bergkamp, who had looked in rich form, promptly limped off it seemed a price worth paying. "He has ankle and groin problems," said Wenger. "Like Winterburn [hamstring] he could be out for two to three weeks."

With Nicholas Anelka missing for another fortnight, Arsenal's striking options look very thin. Charlton's, however, are even slimmer, and for them 1999 promises nothing but misery. The dramatic accession to the Premiership last May, and the vibrant start in August, are fond but distant memories. After seven successful defeats a return to the First Division appears imminent.

If they go down it will be for a chronic lack of goals with yesterday's match a microcosm of the season. As usual they were without luck, Redfearn hitting the bar in the sixth minute, but they also failed to create much or convert anything. The last 40 minutes were spent almost entirely in Arsenal's half, but the only time Alex Manninger made a save of note the ball was already going wide.

Alan Curbishley has a modest amount to spend, about pounds 2.5m, but is struggling to find a striker who fits both the playing and wages bill. With Clive Mendonca and Andy Hunt out with flu - not that either have much troubled defences - yesterday's attack was led by Steve Jones, a game but limited trier.

"The ball was bobbling around in the six-yard box on a couple of occasions and perhaps other teams would have hooked them in. We didn't and perhaps that's why we are where we are," said Curbishley. He added: "We played quite well and deserved something, but I won't hark on about that again, we just hope for the bit of luck everyone needs."

Dame Fortune was yesterday wearing black, with Rennie giving Arsenal one penalty and denying Charlton another. From a distance it looked as if he got both decisions right. Charlton's claim came after five minutes when Martin Keown brought down Jones. Seven minutes into the second period, a minute after Vieira's dismissal, Mark Kinsella upended Ray Parlour with a similar tackle. This time the penalty was given and Marc Overmars scored.

Apart from a shot against the bar after 21 seconds by Luis Boa Morte, two decent saves by Sasa Ilic from Bergkamp and the odd scramble in the Arsenal box that was it. Arsenal are better at defending a lead than anybody and, with Martin Keown outstanding, they always looked like doing so.

"We needed great solidarity and good organisation," said Wenger. "The players deserve a lot of credit, it was a huge performance physically and mentally."

Wenger added that he was "concerned" about Vieira's response to his dismissal. "It could take away his confidence. I hope he does not lose his aggression, it is part of his game. He is a young player, he has improved his discipline a lot and I am not sure he deserved to be sent off. He was destroyed psychologically."

As well as his dismissals, Vieira has received 28 bookings in his two- and-a-half seasons with Arsenal and may now receive a four-match ban.

For all Wenger's protestations of innocence, the disciplinary problems of Vieira and his team-mates cannot be just down to referees. So far Arsenal have overcome the suspensions, but they may eventually cost them a trophy.

Goal: Overmars (pen 53) 0-1.

Charlton Athletic (4-4-1-1): Ilic; Mills, Rufus, Youds, Powell; Newton, K Jones (Lisbie, 67), Kinsella, Robinson; Redfearn (Parker, 80); S Jones. Substitutes not used: Brown, Tiler, Royce (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Bould, Winterburn (Vivas, 29); Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars; Bergkamp (Wreh, 42), Boa

Morte (Grimandi, 61). Substitutes not used: Lukic (gk), Garde.

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).

Sending-off: Arsenal: Vieira. Bookings: Charlton: Robinson, K Jones, Youds, Redfearn, Kinsella. Arsenal: Keown, Bergkamp.

Man of the match: Keown.

Attendance: 20,043.