Football: Arsenal turn a blind eye to the blinder

Nick Townsend says champions will not dwell on epic misfortune; Nigel Winterburn: `You don't sit at home and think about what might have been. You move on'
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THIRTY-SIX hours on, and Nigel Winterburn has still only viewed that goal once. Live, and from the range of a few yards. For the entire Arsenal back-line, rather more used to eulogies, Ryan Giggs' skilled invasive surgery into their collective defensive heart could have left an ugly mental scar, a constant reminder of their fallibility. It was scarcely one to keep for posterity on video, along with newspaper clippings, from which to conduct an extensive post-mortem examination.

But it is not the Arsenal way to dwell on such reversals of fortune. And as for being part of a classic encounter, defeated professional footballers do not tend to see it quite like their Corinthian-spirited brethren in the parks.

"I was out the whole day yesterday [Thursday] with my family and didn't see any TV and I haven't read any of the papers, although from what I remember it was a fantastic goal and an exciting game with lots of chances," reflected the defender on the moment that denied his team the opportunity of a successive Double.

"You don't sit around at home and think about what might have been. You have to move on. It was an empty feeling immediately after the match. But that game has gone now. We've all lost big games before, but we've come out stronger people."

Winterburn, now 35, added: "If you look back in football you tend to be forgotten and get left behind and the players at this club still want to be tremendously successful. The desire to drive each other on is still there."

On Friday, two days after the event itself, an utterly absorbing piece of drama which contained the complex plot strands of a Len Deighton novel and the denouement of a Hercule Poirot mystery, the Hertfordshire hotel that Arsenal utilise as a base after training possessed anything but the funereal atmosphere which one might have anticipated.

It was more that of a revivalist meeting as the Gunners prepared to face Winterburn's old team, Wimbledon, a side who recently held Manchester United. But then the Londoners' strength has always lain in a robust character, in their powers of restoration, particularly those invested in a back four of stout yeomen. As their manager, Arsene Wenger, conceded with a wry smile: "I will put off replacing them as long as possible. I don't know how I will carry on without them."

Lee Dixon, Steve Bould and Winterburn have all signed another year's contract and dislodging the captain, Tony Adams, who has managerial aspirations, and Martin Keown, mightily impressive in midweek, would be like demanding that the Pope should vacate the Vatican. "I look first to the back four," said Wenger. "I look to them for reassurance that the whole team will bounce back straight away, because they are players who have been through all kinds of exciting moments and also disillusion in their careers. The famous Arsenal spirit is in the players who have been here 10 years."

But what of those supposedly endowed with more fragile temperaments? How profound an effect will failing with the added- time penalty, which would have secured the freedom of Wembley on 22 May, have on Dennis Bergkamp. "No one blames him," said Winterburn, who entirely comprehends the emotions, having missed a spot-kick for Arsenal against Luton in the 1988 League Cup final.

"The hardest thing is to pick that ball up and say `I'm going to take a penalty'. Having missed that one, I certainly wouldn't have liked to be put in that situation again. It's a lonely place. He's probably feeling that it's his fault but it's far from that. I am sure he will go on to get some more important goals for us in the League. He'll come back: he's too good a player not to."

The irony of Wednesday night was that Giggs scored just as you were mentally writing testimonies to the qualities of so many Arsenal performers - Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira, that formidable midfield buttress, the always- willing Ray Parlour, and Bergkamp, Keown and Adams, among many.

Yet, while Arsenal are rightly proud of their intricate ground play, if there is a deficiency in Wenger's side it is the inability to profit from an aerial assault. That is when crosses actually reach their target. On too many occasions at Villa Park, they were directed straight into a United shirt. Nicolas Anelka, for all his sparkling attributes, appears to regard a football in the air like a UFO and best left for others to investigate, normally Adams and Keown, although they can hardly be expected to be ever-present in their opponents' half.

Some insight into whether the defeat has had the psychological effect of passing the championship initiative to their deadliest rivals will be gleaned tomorrow night at Highbury. "It will be a boost for United as regards their remaining fixtures," said Winterburn. "They have a hectic schedule, but we need them to slip up to catch them."

A place in next season's refurbished Champions' League seems assured although, as Wenger points out, Leeds could still have a significant say in that and the third-placed team must enter the competition through a play-off. What concerns him more, however, is the effect the new format will have on the Premiership. "The next Champions' League could become terribly demanding," he said. "I am scared that it will kill the English championship because there will be too many games. Teams like Manchester United will next season strengthen their squad yet again and be in a position sometimes of playing their reserves in the League."

He added: "We want to win the Champions' League, but that will mean 17 games, or 19 if you have to qualify. Then there are 38 Premier League games, which makes 55. With pre- season friendlies and if you do well in the FA Cup that makes nearly 70 games and that's without internationals. And don't forget, when next season finishes we have the European Championship. That could mean a possible 85 games for some players."

It was pointed out that Liverpool's Michael Owen has already played 100 games in two years. "And he's only 18," said Wenger. "Look where he is now - in hospital."