Arsenal 3 Manchester United 0
PREDICTING A season on the basis of the Charity Shield is like assessing a novel after reading the opening chapter. Although Arsenal defeated Manchester United with comfort at Wembley yesterday, there will be twists and turn aplenty in the plot over the next 10 months and the only sure bet is that neither of these main characters will be killed off until the end.
Even so, a few early storylines could be detected through the heat haze of a balmy Wembley afternoon. Jaap Stam will take a while to settle into Manchester United's defence, while Arsene Wenger will disturb Arsenal's at his peril; Teddy Sheringham may be in for miserable season, while Nicolas Anelka could have a sensational one; and David Beckham will be abused the length and breadth of the country.
Arsenal's goals came from Marc Overmars after 34 minutes, Christopher Wreh after 61 and Anelka 11 minutes later. The first kindled memories of the Dutch striker's decisive strike at Old Trafford in March and, since it changed the balance of the match, proved just as crucial. With United forced to push forward, Wreh and Anelka both took advantage of Arsenal's quick and intelligent counter-attacking.
An hour and a half chasing the double-winners around Wembley's broad acres in 30-degree heat was not the ideal preparation for United's European date on Wednesday with the Polish champions LKS Lodz, but their defeat cannot entirely be attributed to having half an eye on that.
The nature of the opposition ensured they would not be taking it easy and the opening skirmishes saw Gary Neville becoming Graham Poll's first victim of the season after just three minutes. Martin Keown and Denis Irwin followed before the half-hour and Phil Neville and Lee Dixon later joined them.
Of the six Englishmen among the 15 World Cup participants who got a taste of action, Beckham, inevitably, received most attention. Booed and abused throughout from the Arsenal fans at the western end of the ground, he had a quiet match but at least never reacted to the provocation.
Alongside him Roy Keane, restored to the captaincy after injury, quietly eased himself back into serious action, although one unceremonious dumping on the turf of Overmars, who had had the temerity to dispossess him, showed he remains a player it is unwise to take liberties with.
With the sides so evenly matched the game took a while to catch light as both sides looked to hold the ball in midfield before releasing, using their attacking pace. With Arsenal's offside trap quickly into their groove, and United's midfield holding tight, it was more than half an hour before either goalkeeper was tested. Then Dennis Bergkamp, drifting across the face of the goal 20 yards out, brought a decent diving save from Peter Schmeichel.
Three minutes later, the Dutchman ran on to Patrick Vieira's through ball. His back-heel, on the junction of the six-yard box, duped Stam and Ronny Johnsen, under pressure from Anelka, could only hit his clearance as far as Overmars. He drilled the ball past Schmeichel first time from just inside the area.
Keane, from 25 yards, finally brought David Seaman into the game three minutes from the break but Arsenal quickly regained control in the second period. Dixon and Ray Parlour both threatened before Overmars broke down the left, beating Gary Neville and drawing the United defence. He slipped the ball to Anelka, who turned to transfer it to Wreh, who had lost Stam. Schmeichel saved the first effort, but not the second.
Keown nearly turned Ryan Giggs' corner, flicked on by Johnsen, into his own net as United lifted their game, but as both sides combated the heat with mass substitutions, it was Arsenal who scored again. This time Parlour played the ball through the centre to Anelka, who bemused Stam before scoring inside Schmeichel's near post.
Sheringham had United's best chance to restore pride but wasted it. The early sharpness of Scholes, preferred as Cole's striking partner; the decision to use Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before him; Jesper Blomqvist's imminent return to fitness, thus freeing Giggs for a central role; and the prospect of further striking reinforcements all suggest Sheringham may struggle to regain his club place, let alone his England one. By contrast, Anelka's goal showed his growing maturity as well as his pace. "I believe in him," Wenger said. No wonder.
Both managers said afterwards that they were still searching for another forward, to "strengthen the squad", rather than replace the incumbents. Alex Ferguson also professed himself pleased with Stam. He could hardly say otherwise, but he and Brian Kidd will doubtless be working hard on the pounds 10m Dutchman's porous partnership with Johnsen over the next few weeks.
This was the first time a southern club had won the Shield outright since Spurs in 1962. It was also United's first defeat in seven Shield matches dating back to 1985, when they lost to Everton. That year one of the absent powers, Liverpool, went on to win the Double. While Arsenal looked impressive, and Manchester United shaky, the best comment on the relevance of yesterday's exhibition came from Ladbrokes. "The odds remain unchanged, both sides are 2-1 joint favourites," a spokesman said.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Adams (Bould, 78), Keown, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira (Grimandi, 83), Petit (Boa Morte, 72), Overmars (Hughes, 66); Bergkamp (Wreh h-t); Anelka.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Stam, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Keane (Berg, 75), Butt (Solskjaer, 53), Giggs (Cruyff, 69); Scholes (P Neville, 69), Cole.
Referee: G Poll (Tring).
Bookings: Arsenal Keown, Dixon. Manchester United G Neville, Irwin, P Neville.
Man of the match: Overmars.