ARSENAL yesterday offered an alternative view to their own manager's recent pessimistic prognostications by defeating the Premiership's form team and joining them in the top six.
A year to the week after his charges began an unbeaten run from a less promising position than their current one, which lasted four months and earned them the championship, Arsene Wenger has been casting doubts on their chances of finishing in the top three to earn another shot at the Champions' League. As David O'Leary, unlucky to lose by two goals on his return to Highbury for the first time as a fully fledged manager, put it: "Perhaps he's superstitious and has to say the same thing every year. He's very good with words."
Whether or not Wenger and his fellow countrymen know the word kidology, they are learning to practise it. The knack of remaining on the right side of English referees is proving more elusive; yesterday Gilles Grimandi became the fifth Arsenal player sent off this season - and the 17th since Wenger took over two years ago - when he pushed his head into Alan Smith's face only 15 minutes after coming on as a substitute.
By that time, just before the finish, Arsenal were in control for the first time. Even at 2-0 early in the second half, they looked vulnerable to Lee Bowyer's vigorous industry and the fierce shooting of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who quickly halved the deficit. Only when Dennis Bergkamp, having scored the first goal, had contributed his second assist of the game by sending the outstanding Emmanuel Petit through were the champions in the clear.
They have now moved within four points of the joint leaders, Aston Villa, who play at Charlton tonight. Arsenal also visit The Valley next week, after entertaining West Ham, and a successful Christmas in the capital would set them up for a happy new year.
"It's more important at the moment that we concentrate on the way we play before speaking of the title," Wenger said. "We have to be realistic. After a few games, we'll see where we stand."
He admitted to being concerned early on at the way Bowyer and David Hopkin were man-marking Petit and Patrick Vieira in the centre of midfield, describing Bowyer as "a specialist at upsetting people". Although no player on the pitch was old enough to remember the physical battles between the two clubs 30 years ago, there seemed to be some keen to re-enact them: Vieira had downed Hasselbaink painfully within 20 seconds and the young Leeds defender Jonathan Woodgate was booked before two minutes had been played.
Woodgate was used as one of three centre-halves as O'Leary changed his system to compensate for the loss of Lucas Radebe and David Batty. "I'd love to have come here with the full monty, a full team," he said. Those who were chosen sometimes seemed to be doing their own choreography of a move more associated with Arsenal, stepping out in a straight line with arms raised.
It let them down for two of the three goals, starting in the 28th minute. David Hopkin had just side-footed feebly wide at the other end when Petit found Nicolas Anelka for a flicked header. Anelka was probably just offside, but the flag, unlike the defenders' arms, stayed down and Bergkamp ran on to beat Nigel Martyn.
Cleverly drifting slightly deeper to elude the markers, Bergkamp went on to give his most influential performance for a while. Eight minutes into the second half he fed Vieira, who slid past Woodgate and scored his first goal of the season, low in the corner.
Leeds deserved better and Hasselbaink thundered them back into contention as Harry Kewell rolled back an inviting pass following another thrust by Bowyer. But as the game became even more open, Arsenal finished the stronger. Marc Overmars side-footed straight at Martyn and Anelka pulled a shot wide before Nelson Vivas set up a classic counter-attack by winning the ball and feeding it to Bergkamp on the left. A delicious pass was met by Petit's fine finish, reminiscent of his coup de grace in the World Cup final.
"They'll be there at the finish, don't worry about that," said O'Leary of his former club. His new one may be slightly further away, but if they keep improving, not by much.
Goals: Bergkamp (28) 1-0; Vieira (53) 2-0; Hasselbaink (66) 2-1; Petit (82) 3-1.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Bould, Keown, Vivas; Ljungberg (Grimandi, 72), Vieira, Petit, Overmars (Wreh, 87); Bergkamp, Anelka. Substitutes not used: Boa Morte, Mendez, Lukic (gk).
Leeds United (3-5-2): Martyn; Haaland, Molenaar (Wetherall, 44), Woodgate; Halle, Bowyer, Hopkin, Granville (Smith, 80), Harte; Kewell, Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Sharpe, Wijnhard, Robinson (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Portland).
Sending-off: Arsenal Grimandi. Booked: Arsenal: Vieira, Bergkamp. Leeds: Woodgate, Hopkin, Harte.
Man of match: Petit.
Attendance: 38,025.Reuse content