Football: Arsenal's ambition checked by Keane

Coventry City 3 Arsenal 2

TWO SEASONS ago, Arsenal went into the Christmas programme in sixth place, 13 points adrift of the lead. They finished champions. Last season they were again outside the top five and finished second.

Since they are fourth this morning, a mere eight points behind Leeds, it would be premature to write them off this season but, having crashed to an unexpected defeat at Highfield Road yesterday, it seems another awesome New Year charge will be required if they are to contest the title.

On a ground where they are usually successful the Gunners, despite a late rally, were well beaten, conceding long-range goals to Gary McAllister and Mustapha Hadji in the first half and a poacher's goal to Robbie Keane in the second. Fredrik Ljungberg and Davor Suker gave them hope of a point in the last quarter but Coventry deservedly held on. Arsenal's match against Leeds at Highbury tomorrow now takes on an even greater importance.

Coventry had begun with the expected rush of attacks but Arsenal denied them a clear opening and looked to have fashioned a lead after five minutes when good work by Thierry Henry and Nwankwo Kanu released Marc Overmars on goal. He had time and space but Magnus Hedman saved well with his legs.

The Sky Blues made the most of their reprieve, Cedric Roussel laying the ball off two minutes later for McAllister, whose 25-yard shot deflected off Martin Keown to leave David Seaman stranded and beaten on his return to the Arsenal goal.

The Londoners were surprised but initially unworried. With Gilles Grimandi prominent in midfield they pushed forward and Emmanuel Petit shot just wide. But mistakes began to creep in with Tony Adams, unexpectedly, a prime culprit. Hadji wasted one opportunity while Keane shot wide from another.

Offensively, meanwhile, Arsenal had began to run into blind alleys. Overmars v Paul Telfer did not look an equal contest but the Dutchman kept drifting inside and, when he was wide, Arsenal were unable to find him. On the other flank Steve Froggatt, who was given little opportunity to show his attacking qualities, made a superb tackle to dispossess Kanu as the Nigerian threatened to dribble through seven minutes before the break.

Two minutes later Froggatt did move into an advanced position and, taking a cross-field ball from Carlton Palmer, rolled a pass to Hadji on the edge of the box. The Moroccan stunned the ball with his first touch and, on the turn, curled the ball inside the far post with his second.

It was a spectacular goal and, with Hedman making an equally impressive save from Henry at the other end, Coventry fans were able to wallow in its majesty through the interval.

Ljungberg hit the side netting early in the second period but Coventry continued to press with Keane shooting over, Youssef Chippo bringing Seaman to his knees and Roussel opening up the Arsenal defence with a cross which required only the merest of touches from Chippo to produce a third.

A caution for Grimandi, his 10th of the season, underlined Arsenal's frustration, which deepened when the Frenchman limped off soon afterwards. However, they hauled themselves back into the game and, after Overmars headed on, Ljungberg, at the third attempt, pulled a goal back.

With Henry again hitting the side-netting a typical Arsenal fight-back seemed in the offing but Coventry returned to the attack and, from Roussel's flick-on, Keane conjured an exquisite finish for his eighth goal of the season.

Now, surely, the game was won but Arsenal refused to give up and with five minutes left Suker scored a fine individual goal to prompt a late bombardment in which Lee Dixon almost snatched a point.

The victory took Coventry to 13th place, a rare Yuletide height. In the last two seasons they have embarked on a holiday programme in the bottom four and survived with relative comfort so this year, assuming they cope with the African Nations' Cup absence of their Moroccan pair, a prosperous start to the century looks assured.

Goals: McAllister (7) 1-0; Hadji (40) 2-0; Ljungberg (65) 2-1; Keane (71) 3-1; Suker (85) 3-2.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Hedman; Telfer, Breen, Williams, Froggatt; Chippo, (Gustafsson, 90) Palmer, McAllister, Hadji; Keane, (Whelan, 81) Roussel. Substitutes not used: Norman, Eustace, Ogrizovic (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Ljungberg, Grimandi (Suker, 60), Petit, Overmars; Henry, Kanu. Substitutes not used: Barrett, Luzhny, Silvinho, Manninger (gk).

Referee: R Harris (Oxford).

Bookings: Arsenal: Grimandi, Henry.

Man of the match: McAllister.

Attendance: 22,757.

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