Football: Big hit Heskey boxes clever

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Leicester City 1 Arsenal 1

AS IF the pugilist tendency in the Arsenal squad were not pronounced enough, Arsene Wenger revealed after the champions' latest, somewhat fortuitous draw that he covets the Leicester striker popularly known as "Bruno".

Ignoring transfer protocol, the Arsenal manager openly expressed his interest in signing Emile Heskey. Whether he was being mischievous or simply candid we can only surmise, but his admiration for the muscular 20-year-old's performance was fully merited.

Heskey had not only landed what appeared certain to be a deserved knock- out blow until Stephen Hughes exposed Leicester's glass jaw at the death. At times he also made Arsenal's fabled back four, hailed by Wenger as the best in the world, labour like ageing prize-fighters.

Arsenal, who visit Lens in their opening Champions' League fixture on Wednesday, are without a goal from an out-and-out attacker in 877 minutes of Premiership action stretching back to Barnsley in April. They moved to fill the gap left by Ian Wright's departure by snapping up Sweden's Fredrik Ljungberg on Friday. Yet it is clear that Wenger would be in the market for the pounds 10m-rated Heskey if and when Leicester decide to do business.

"He tried like crazy - too much for my liking - and we gave him too much space and didn't close him down in the first half," Wenger said. "Unfortunately they don't want to sell him, so we'll have to look elsewhere." But was Heskey, with his aggressive, typically British style, the sort of striker he was looking for? "He would be ideal."

Heskey signed an extension to his contract only last Thursday, amid defiant talk about Leicester no longer being a selling club. In theory, the pounds 10,000- a-week deal keeps him at Filbert Street until the millennium. In the real world, as Manchester United's highly dubious wooing of Dwight Yorke proved, even the most settled of cult heroes can have his head turned and be gone before anyone can say "Know what I mean 'Arry?"

Heskey's nickname always owed more to sloppy stereotyping than to any similarity with Panto Frank. These days he looks leaner, quicker and more confident than when he first pitted himself against top-class defenders. He is also no longer playing as a right-footed, left-sided forward, though the benefits of his stint there were evident as he powered through a retreating rearguard to bludgeon the ball past David Seaman with his "southpaw" boot.

The main question mark against Heskey now is his strike rate. Martin O'Neill, the Leicester manager, conceded that the local boy blooded by Mark McGhee at 17 needs to become a 15 to 20 goals-a-season man "to convince everyone he's the player we think he is". After finishing with 10 last time, he has two to his name so far.

That tally would make him the leading scorer at Highbury. Arsenal's unbeaten start, including creditable draws away to two of last term's top four, cannot disguise the fact that the Double holders are light years away from the unstoppable force of the spring.

Hughes's speculative effort, facilitated by untypically poor positioning by Kasey Keller, finally ended their barren run at 371 minutes. Wenger, in his relief, admitted that scoring had become "almost an obsession, a psychological problem". But Lens' spies would have seen nothing to worry them unduly, save the odd sign that Dennis Bergkamp is emerging from his World Cup hangover.

The French champions must have been heartened, if a little puzzled, by Arsenal's early-season sluggishness. Not to mention the absence of width, a dearth of creativity which contrasted with the invention of Muzzy Izzet, and the sight of Patrick Vieira being hauled off after fouling Heskey. Wenger feared his frustration might boil over and provoke another red card.

In the Stade Felix Bollaert's "very English atmosphere", as Wenger described it, the fighting spirit which is currently compensating for a lack of inspiration will have to be tempered by greater control if Arsenal are to punch their weight.

Goals: Heskey (28) 1-0; Hughes (90) 1-1.

Leicester City (3-5-2): Keller; Sinclair, Elliott, Kaamark; Savage, Zagorakis (Campbell, h-t), Lennon, Izzet, Guppy; Heskey, Cottee. Substitutes not used: Taggart, Parker, Wilson, Arphexad (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon (Vivas, 75), Keown, Bould, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira (Garde, 72), Hughes, Overmars; Wreh (Anelka, 60), Bergkamp. Substitutes not used: Grimandi, Manninger (gk).

Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).

Bookings: Leicester: Sinclair. Arsenal: Winterburn, Hughes, Vieira.

Attendance: 21,628.

Man of the match: Heskey.