Football: Clever Kanu silences critics

Arsenal's Nigerian import puts controversy behind him with sublime moments of skill. By Richard Williams
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ALTHOUGH HE will be relieved not to have lost for the fifth time in a row to his bitterest rivals, the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, is unlikely to have been particularly comforted by last night's draw. After a compellingly raw and unaffectionate contest, Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, will probably have drawn the greater encouragement from his team's success in repelling the home side's waves of attacks in the final quarter, after United had drawn level in a match they had seemed in danger of losing.

As had always seemed likely, given the fixture's recent history of bloodcurdling encounters, the star performances were given by Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, the enforcers of their respective sides, whose thunderous challenges and perceptive distribution were constant factors. Outstanding supporting roles were played by two comparatively unsung players, United's Jesper Blomqvist and Arsenal's Stephen Hughes, both remarkably resolute. But the most interesting and perhaps the most significant contribution came from Nwankwo Kanu, Arsenal's latest acquisition, whose display in the place of the suspended Dennis Bergkamp was as impressive as his debut last weekend had been controversial.

Unsurprisingly, Kanu and Marc Overmars were greeted with ritual booing in recognition of their part in the remarkable events at Highbury in last Saturday's annulled Cup tie. But the Nigerian, clearly unaffected, wasted no time in showing England what a gifted footballer he is. Within the first couple of minutes he had played a neat one-two with Nicolas Anelka before putting the French striker through in the inside-right channel. After 10 minutes the same combination almost produced a goal when Kanu's persistence produced another clever ball which Peter Schmeichel fumbled away from Anelka's feet.

Built like a basketball player, Kanu is a deceptive player. To judge him strictly by his physical appearance, he ought to be playing up front for Wimbledon, jumping for high balls with elbows windmilling. In fact he prefers, like Bergkamp, to lurk in the space behind the No 9 - the position both of them knew in their Ajax days as the "shadow striker". He is a highly cerebral footballer whose unorthodoxy and maturity were already evident when he won a European Cup winner's medal in 1995, as a 17-year-old.

The following year, just before his move to Internazionale and the discovery of his serious heart condition, he captained Nigeria to the Olympic gold medal in Athens, Georgia, beating Brazil (with Ronaldo) in the semi-final and Argentina (with Ortega) in the final. In both matches the eventual winners had to come from behind, and it was here that Kanu's fighting spirit and leadership quality became apparent.

Sadly, the next time we heard about that fighting spirit was in a medical bulletin from Milan, giving the doctors' verdict that a defective heart valve would mean a premature end to his career. He refused to accept it, and a series of operations in the United States brought him back into action, if not into the favour of the Italian club's coaches. Their short- sightedness is Arsenal's good fortune, and that of English football in general.

Kanu began last night's second half with a piece of brilliantly original thinking. Receiving the ball just outside the United penalty area, he stood stock still for a split second, throwing Jaap Stam off balance. When he finally made his dart forward, the defender was undone. As the cover converged on him, Kanu was smothered within a couple of yards. But he had done enough. The ball broke to Anelka, and with a clean strike it was in the net.

Ferguson was on his feet, fearing yet another defeat. For all the grit of Keane and Blomqvist, too many players were underachieving. An obvious exception was Andy Cole, who thoroughly deserved to level the scores with a perfectly placed header.