Football Commentary: Rurals ride roughshod over Arsenal: Ipswich creep up on blindside - United's flexible response - Blackburn brook no argument - Spurs' spoiling role

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The Independent Online
CHRISTMAS traditionally separates the contenders from the pretenders, but not this time. Here we are, half-way through the season, and the championship has about as much shape as a Stan Flashman two-piece.

Leeds United and Arsenal could do with the Barnet behemoth's braces to prevent them sagging any further and, with everyone else consistent only in their inconsistency, Norwich City retain a healthy lead, despite taking just the one point from their last three games.

Their inability to beat Tottenham at home on Saturday drew knowing looks all round, but while no one outside East Anglia expects them still to be on top come May, it is a continuing source of irritation for the Platinum Eight, as the privileged minority have taken to calling themselves, that none of their number is playing well enough to dislodge the rural upstarts. More power to their elbow.

Resurgent Blackburn could do it today, if they were to win at Ipswich while the leaders were losing at Leeds, but the scenario is an unlikely one. In an increasingly contrary season, Ipswich provide a haven of constancy. Beaten fewer times than anyone else (twice in 21 League games), they have crept up to sixth place, unappreciated by all but their own supporters until that derby triumph over Norwich last week alerted a wider audience to a homespun team's progress and potential.

Like their pace-setting neighbours, they will probably cross the line somewhere behind Manchester United, who are starting to look the part, but John Lyall and his managerial protege, Mick McGiven, have already gone a long way towards repairing reputations damaged before their departure from West Ham.

Spending next to nothing, they have created a side whose origins and principles would be instantly identifiable at Upton Park, but, freed of the devil-may-care traditions of the East End 'academy', there is a new pragmatism to the strategy.

It would have been heresy down in London's E13 (it might also have won rather more), but this Lyall team not only pass the ball pleasingly, along the ground, but also defend in depth, and with bristling determination.

It is not always easy on the eye. By all accounts, they played well against Norwich, but their Coca- Cola Cup win at home to Aston Villa was a scrappy, tedious affair, and Saturday's goalless bore at Arsenal did nothing to dispel the Boxing Day ennui.

Ipswich withdrew everyone bar Chris Kiwomya behind the ball in a safety-first 4-5-1, challenging the pre-season favourites for the title to break them down. Arsenal's favouritism, of course, lasted about as long as Jim Davidson's nuptials, the seemingly irretrievable breakdown between midfield and attack leaving them with one goal in their last six League games, and two points from a possible 18.

The Arsenal of old would have won by a landslide, but slipshod finishing betrayed a loss of confidence which hardly bodes well for those of us who helped to shorten their odds in the summer.

They had six good chances without reply in a one-sided first half, but Ian Wright, to his admirers' frustration, was in England form - industrious and inventive but innocuous in front of goal.

Ipswich, who took 40 minutes to win a corner, defended assiduously, and were well served by their journeyman goalkeeper, Clive Baker, who made inspirational saves from Nigel Winterburn and Steve Bould, but they also needed a generous helping of luck.

Wright, accelerating through the middle, shot against Baker's right-hand post, and Alan Smith missed twice from five yards with the keeper helpless. Ipswich's only chance was delayed until the 71st minute, when Winterburn, under pressure from Kiwomya, was desperately close to putting through his own goal.

The bond-buying brigade were not happy, their vocal dissatisfaction epitomised when David Hillier was unshod, and hobbled to the touchline for running repairs. 'Leave the boot on; take him off,' bellowed Angry of Archway.

Hillier's position, midfield, is the area where Arsenal are most conspicuously lacking. It can only be a matter of time before an attack drawn from Wright, Smith, Campbell, Merson and Limpar comes good again, but the chances of it being sooner rather than later would improve if there was a little more craft and subtlety behind them. The service provided by Hillier and John Jensen is too plain and predictable to outwit defenders as canny and composed as John Wark and David Linighan.

George Graham, who has a fortune available for reinforcements, is aware of the problem and working to remedy it, with the smart money on an early move for Roy Keane, of Nottingham Forest.

Nine points is a lot of ground to make up on the leaders, but others have done it in the not-too-distant past, and Arsenal are not about to run up a white flag on the pole reserved for the championship pennant just yet.

Graham said he was not going to 'whinge' about the circumstances behind his latest disappointment, then went on to lament Ipswich's timid approach, their 'gamesmanship' and timewasting, and the referee's indulgence of it. 'If everyone starts playing like that, we're going to see a lot of boring games,' he whinged.

Eventually, though, he got to the bottom whine. 'They were very defensive, but I suppose it's our job to beat teams like that. It's no good looking for excuses, we need a goal. Something to spark us off. I could never have imagined that attack we've got scoring once in six games.'

Aston Villa away tonight will be a very different proposition, with Ron Atkinson's Villa committed to attack. 'It will be nice to play in a more attractive game,' Graham added. 'This one couldn't have been very entertaining.' It wasn't.

Arsenal: Seaman; Lydersen, Winterburn, Hillier, Bould, Linighan, Jensen (O'Leary 75), Wright, Smith, Campbell (Limpar 75), Flatts. Substitute not used: Miller (gk).

Ipswich Town: Baker; Johnson, Thompson, Stockwell, Wark, Linighan, Williams, Goddard (Genchev 60), Whitton (Whelan 55), Dozzell, Kiwomya. Substitute not used: Winters (gk).

Referee: R Milford (Bristol).

(Photograph omitted)