Football: Dynamic Adams the neutraliser

Champions' League: Arsenal fall back on their rock of ages as Ukrainians turn on the pace and poise
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AS THEIR team coach crossed the Dinipro River, which dissects Kiev, en route to Borispol airport and the flight to London the Ukraine champions would, no doubt, have cast their eyes left to where an enormous, ostentatious gold statue looms over their city. It is called the Mother of Ukraine, arms outstretched with sword and shield, and was constructed by order of Moscow during the Soviet era, when more Ukrainians than any other group were imprisoned in the gulags of the former USSR. As they will tell you wryly today, "the bigger the tyranny, the bigger the statue".

To Dynamo Kiev, arriving at Wembley and surveying the colossus that dominated their rivals' defence was probably an equally disturbing experience, except that Tony Adams' arms tend to be either exhorting his colleagues or appealing for fouls or off-sides. In a similar sense, too, the Arsenal captain is also a phenomenon from another epoch. But this is a man who has adapted supremely well to a game increasingly based on pace and technique - neither of which has naturally been a virtue of his - rather better than some of his critics anticipated.

If Victoria Adams equals Posh Spice, then Tony Adams has become synonymous with Post Vice. Whether it was the cleansing process of "coming out" over his alcoholism and the catharsis he experienced by writing about it in his autobiography or the revitalisation of his career brought about by Arsene Wenger, an appreciation of Adams' qualities can be addictive. Maybe it was merely all those carrots hurled at him during his "eeyore" days, which means that he cannot only see better at night but also appreciate the bigger picture, both off and on the field.

During Wednesday night's Uefa Champions' League contest, the absence of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit as midfield minders served to encourage wave upon wave of assaults on the Arsenal rearguard. On occasions, Adams single- handedly neutralised the visitors' offensive, although Martin Keown was a formidable aide-de-camp, particularly in the second half in which he also displayed his creative capabilities, as did Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn. Indeed, were it not for their advancing years, and Glenn Hoddle's desire to blood young players, there would be a strong argument for deploying the entire awesome foursome as an England defence...were the England coach of a mind to adopt a 4-4-2 system.

It is a remarkable fact to consider that three of that quartet - Adams, Winterburn and Dixon - have been together over a decade, while even Keown has been around for five of them. Like The Mouse Trap you suspect that, ageing limbs withstanding, they will, in both senses of the word, run and run. "It is an old back four," reflected one Kiev coach gravely and rather sadly given the circumstances. "But so very, very strong."

It was as well that they are, because Arsenal will rarely be confronted by a more mobile and more potentially destructive strikeforce, even if the Ukraine side's execution was not as acute as their approach work was cute until the excellent Serhii Rebrov's equaliser in added time.

Yet, now more than ever, Adams is the anchorman of the quartet, as cool under the floodlights of the national stadium as Des Lynam is under the studio lights, as his image has subtly altered from a do-or-die defender with a touch of desperation, to one whose authority and perception of the game perfected over 14 years for club and country is now brushed with style and refinement. His second-half challenge which retrieved the ball as clinically as a surgeon's blade extracting a minute organ as Andrii Shevchenko, the striker with an unerring homing instinct for goal, arrowed towards David Seaman's post was one which drew a sharp intake of breath from 73,256 throats. "You have to give credit to Kiev for forcing me to make tackles like that," Adams reflected with a smile. "They are very strong athletes, very robust in defending and very comfortable on the ball and the lad up front [Shevchenko] is a superb player. I was probably a bit overworked, but we're still in the competition, with three games to go. There's hope."

Not unless they win, or at least secure a draw, in the return of the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday week without the services of Dennis Bergkamp, whose fear of flying did not prevent him taking a lethal lift-off and converting Dixon's splendid cross. Despite Kiev having accumulated just two points in Group E thus far, they remain a potent threat to Arsenal. Their veteran head coach, Valerii Lobanovsky, formerly manager of the USSR, and now back at Kiev for a second time, will see to that.

Think of a combination of Kenny Dalglish and Brian Clough, and extract the humour and you've got some idea of "Loba" who effects an air of a man who once took his holidays at the Lubianka. He rules like a despot. Legends about him abound, and a good number of them are true. Before every game, for instance, he takes each player into a room and gives them each an intensive interview, not merely satisfying himself that they absolutely comprehend their given role, but also ensuring that their state of mind is 100 per cent. "He has an almost obsessive eye for detail," said a source close to the team. "They are frightened to death of him." All his players' idiosyncrasies are listed in a book called "The Bible", kept in a safe at the club's pounds 16m state-of-the-art training centre. Nothing has been left to chance in Loba's "laboratory" since he first collaborated in the Seventies with Professor Anatoly Zelentsov and produced "The Science of Football" which is designed to minimise errors on the pitch.

The evidence, from a 4-0 victory at the Nou Camp last season and now this exhibition at Wembley has been that the appliance of science has been successful. Kiev's speed of thought, movement, control and accuracy of delivery made Arsenal appear positively pedestrian for too much of the game. Of course, it helps no end to have a back four of Ukrainian internationals, of whom Oleh Luzhnyi, the subject of considerable Premiership interest, severely limited Marc Overmars' ambition. Nor is there a disadvantage in having the 22-year-old Schevchenko at your disposal, although he is currently the subject of a pounds 19m bid from Milan.

"That is the third time we have conceded a late goal and we have to be more ruthless," said Overmars. "If we had won, we would have qualified for the next round. Ukraine away will be very difficult. They had to come out here at Wembley because it was crucial. If they had lost it was over. They've got a chance now. But I think we should qualify here, at home against Lens." That's assuming Arsenal begin to confirm that performing within the open spaces of Wembley benefits them. The feeling persists that it doesn't, despite talk of it becoming a permanent home, and Wenger will have been the first to recognise they remain undefeated only because of the resourcefulness of Adams & Co.