FOOTBALL Defence is central to Arsenal's hopes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOOTBALL

GLENN MOORE

reports from Paris

Will it be Andy Linighan, unheralded and unloved but a Cup final match- winner before? Will it be the reformed addict Paul Merson; or Ian Wright- Wright-Wright. Perhaps, Lord forbid, it will be the former Spur, Nayim.

One thing seems sure, whoever emerges as the central figure of tonight's European Cup-Winners' Cup final between Arsenal and Real Zaragoza at the Parc des Princes, they will do so in dramatic style.

Arsenal are not exactly synonymous with thrills and spills, but after the roller-coaster ride they have enjoyed and endured this season, a stale final, like last year's win in Copenhagen, would be an anticlimax indeed.

On that occasion television audiences were channel- hopping or fast asleep long before Tony Adams became the seventh English club captain to lift the trophy.

Not that the Gooner hordes, busy celebrating Alan Smith's rare left-foot volleyed goal, were bored. To the accompaniment of "One-nil to the Arsenal" their opponents, Parma, became the sixth holders to lose in the final.

Can Arsenal become the first to retain the cup? And will Ian Wright become the first player in four decades of Continental competition to score in every match and every round of a European trophy?

On such questions does the future of Stewart Houston hang. The Arsenal manager, installed until the end of the season after George Graham departed in disgrace, faces the most important game of his three-month trial period tonight.

In that time, the threat of relegation has disappeared and a European final been reached. Arsenal have, at times, played more expansive football than that encouraged in Graham's later years, but they have also looked unusually frail in defence.

That is why Houston's main concern tonight is how to replace Steve Bould, who is suspended for the final, and what to do about Nayim and Juan Esnaider, who are Zaragoza's playmaker and leading striker respectively.

The pair, one born in Morocco, the other in Argentina, destroyed Chelsea in Spain in the semi-finals.

With Martin Keown expected to be deployed in midfield, possibly man-marking Nayim, Linighan, who broke his nose and scored a late extra-time winner in the 1993 FA Cup final, is the likely candidate to replace Bould.

Esnaider will lead a Christmas-tree formation with the Spanish internationals, Miguel Pardeza and Francisco Higuera, tucked in behind him. A change in goal is likely as Juanmi Garcia suffered a blood clot in his right leg as Zaragoza moved up to third in the Spanish league on Saturday.

While the current Zaragoza side does not match their fine team of the Sixties - which won the Fairs' (now Uefa) Cup 31 years ago - it is good enough to have finished in the top 10 in Spain for four years and to be able to leave out Cafu, who played for Brazil in the World Cup final.

Arsenal are more experienced in Europe, but they are also an ageing team, notably in defence. They are limited in imagination and scope but, as they showed in the epic win over Sampdoria, they are well-endowed with heart and courage. Much change lies around the Highbury corner, but the current XI have at least one more great performance in them.

The portents are good. The Parc des Princes is expected to be a sea of red and white, the Spanish club are regarded as poor travellers, and Britain is awash with the sort of bulldog spirit Arsenal have drawn heavily on in their European adventures. Arsenal to win then, but not without alarm.

Hartson's challenge, page 38

ARSENAL

ADAMS

REAL ZARAGOZA

AGUADO

Comments