Football: Arsenal suffer in silence

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The Independent Online
Arsenal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Sheffield United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

AFTER watching his side drop two more points, to leave them nine behind the leaders, George Graham admitted something was missing at Arsenal. Crowd noise. Then, perhaps realising this might be interpreted as veiled criticism of the reconstruction of the North Bank, he added: 'I thought the mural was noisier this week.'

You could see his point. Even while Arsenal were creating a succession of chances in a first half they dominated, the atmosphere was distinctly muted. After a couple of good cup victories they were entitled to more. 'In the north the fans lift the players. In the south it is the team that must lift the players,' Graham said.

In fairness to the faithful, the reconstruction of the North Bank has given Highbury a slightly surreal feel all season. Deprived of their traditional stamping ground, Arsenal's vocal following are not really at home in the Clock End. Perhaps also we are getting a glimpse of what is to come in all- seater stadiums. If so it is not an appetising one.

Then again, it may have been the way Arsenal played. True, there were plenty of scoring opportunities (12 shots on target), but they tended to arise from individual breaks rather than concerted pressure. Even when they were playing well, Arsenal had style but little shape.

David Hillier, despite striking a spectacular long-ranger just before the break, again failed to dominate the midfield. Neither did John Jensen. Arsenal often resemble a good orchestra in need of a conductor, and it is easy to see why many in north London are keen on Keane.

The bright spot was Anders Limpar. He constantly caught the eye with his willingness to take people on, and perceptive distribution, setting up Hillier's goal with a characteristic wriggle through from the left. Graham, who has often criticised the Swede this season, was effusive afterwards.

Sheffield United's most entertaining performance came from their manager, Dave Bassett. Depressingly mundane for most of the match, they equalised with three minutes left when Adrian Littlejohn capitalised on Andy Linighan's poor defensive header.

Bassett refused to feel guilty about his side's fortunate point, claiming Arsenal had been as lucky at Bramall Lane in September. Nor did he think the lack of vocal support helped United. 'My side nod off at the drop of a hat, anyway,' he said, 'so I prefer a bit of atmosphere.'

Goals: Hillier (44) 1-0; Littlejohn (87) 1-1.

Arsenal: Seaman; Dixon, Winterburn, Hillier, Linighan, Adams, Jensen, Wright, Smith, Merson (O'Leary, 82), Limpar. Substitutes not used: Campbell, Miller (gk).

Sheffield United: Kelly; Gage, Barnes, Gannon (Cork, 64), Pemberton, Beesley, Kamara, Rogers (Hoyland, 82), Littlejohn, Deane, Hodges. Substitutes not used: Veysey (gk).

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).