Football: Bergkamp under doctor's orders

Arsenal's Dutch master is back to his old tricks and flicks.
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The Independent Online
SOUND FAMILIAR? Just when you thought it was safe to write off their defence, question their manager and dismiss their star player, good old Arsenal have done it again and confounded the critics. If truth be told, though, their return to form is nothing if not predictable.

Thursday's European performance may not have reached the dizzy heights of last Saturday's league game, but then Nantes are not Middlesbrough, and five goals in a match are a rarity. What will have pleased Arsene Wenger was that Arsenal won, without playing particularly well, by a comfortable 3-0 margin and will, barring a French farce in a fortnight, progress to the next round. It's not the Champions' League, but the Uefa Cup will do.

"We've been given another opportunity to be successful in Europe, and we want to win it," said Wenger, who was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Hertfordshire on Friday. "It may not have the same prestige, but you only have to look at the quality of some of the teams to realise it's going to take a good side to emerge triumphant."

If Arsenal do book their place in the final at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen - for a tie, perhaps relevantly, sandwiched between the last day of the Premiership and the FA Cup final - they will owe much to the mastery of Dennis Bergkamp.

Following an indifferent start to the season, the Dutchman has recently rediscovered some of the form which brought him such a loud fanfare during the Gunners' League and Cup double-winning season of 1997-98. "He looks sharp and confident again," said Dr Wenger. "When he's in this kind of mood, you want him to get the ball because you feel he can make the difference. For a while I did not feel that sharpness and power, but he has unquestionably got that back now."

Interestingly, Wenger believes that Bergkamp's resurgence can be attributed to the Dutchman's fitness. "It's all about confidence and, in his case, I feel that it's been a physical problem. Dennis didn't have any real pre-season preparation, because he was injured. Don't forget he missed the first games of the campaign. You need a few matches before your confidence returns."

On Thursday night, most of the old magic was back. The control, the touches, the flicks, the passes, the vision; Bergkamp literally ran the show. It was just reward that he capped his masterful performance by scoring Arsenal's third, with a delicate chip over the advancing keeper. Dennis was back.

"Yeah," said Bergkamp after the game, "I am stronger now and that's a good feeling, because it's easier to play football when you're like that. And scoring again was great. I'm getting close to my best."

Predictably, Arsenal's upturn in fortunes has coincided with the revival of their talismanic No 10. "I think we're getting there. You can tell we're more in tune now, because we're able to change the way we play and raise a gear during matches. That's the sign of a good side."

Bergkamp is unable to pin-point the reason for the Gunners' stuttering start, although he believes injuries are largely to blame. "With so many players out, we haven't had the same side as last year. That's why the new guys took time to settle."

Although Bergkamp's comeback will be music to Wenger's ears, the doctor will be concerned with the condition of two key players, who have yet to make their mark this season. "This is not the Premiership, so here is Patrick Vieira," came the announcement over the Tannoy before the Uefa Cup game. It might as well have sounded, "Thank God for Europe", as the 23-year-old has served less than half of his seven-match domestic ban.

The recurrence of Petit's knee injury is a further blow. Arsenal are a better, more balanced team when the French World Cup winner is playing on the left of midfield. And Petit, in turn, is at his best when Vieira is by his side. Wenger will be hoping that their absence from today's Premiership match against Derby and Tuesday's Worthington Cup fourth-round tie at Middlesbrough, are not a regular occurrence. The longer the two generals are away from the midfield, the longer Arsenal will suffer. With Freddie Ljungberg suspended and a number of players injured, the missing Frenchmen are giving Wenger a "tremendous problem".

Last season's statistics say it all. Of the 11 matches which Petit missed, Arsenal won just three. As for Vieira, he was their top passer (with 83 per cent of passes completed), their top tackler (with 70 per cent of winning challenges) and, crucially, their worst offender (with seven yellow cards and one red).

As Alan Hansen remarked: "Everything hinges on those two players. They're the absolute dream ticket. Not only is one of them left-footed and the other right, they are also as comfortable going forward as they are defending. They give options. I have no doubt Arsenal lost the title last season because they didn't play enough due to suspensions and injuries."

As a result of their absence, and that of other regulars (Martin Keown, Lee Dixon), the likes of Gilles Grimandi and the Argentina and Sweden internationals Nelson Vivas and Ljungberg, have found themselves thrust into first-team action far more often. Encouragingly, Bergkamp feels they are gelling. "It always takes a while, but we're notoriously slow starters anyway. We traditionally get better during the season. It's been a feature of my time here."

In the last two seasons, Arsenal have cleverly positioned themselves in the chasing pack until Christmas, before then launching their assault in the final months. They ran the perfect long-distance race in Wenger's maiden season in charge, and only narrowly missed out last year when they were pipped to the title, by Manchester United, by a point.

"We're usually good at pacing ourselves," Bergkamp said. "Well, this season it's the same again. We're there or there-abouts so if we can keep up this level, we've got a chance." With Dennis menacing once more, you would not bet against them.