Football: Ekoku shoots down witless Gunners

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The Independent Online
Wimbledon 1 Arsenal 0

Ekoku 77

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 26,003

ARSENAL must have known they were in trouble when the official preview of the match at Selhurst Park yesterday dropped on their doormat. "They are not pretty," it said, "but Wimbledon always carry a threat." How predictable, how pertinent.

Wimbledon beat the champions with a solitary goal 15 minutes from the end as the contest was entering its messiest period. It was far from pretty but stemmed from the sort of cussed, determined move which is precisely what makes them threatening. It embodied their drawbacks as much as their virtues.

A foray down the left by Michael Hughes was surely about to reach a dead end as Lee Dixon, part of the legendary Gunners' defensive quartet, approached.

Hughes persevered and managed to send in a swerving cross at an awkward height. David Seaman, the Arsenal goalkeeper, parried the ball against Robbie Earle's arm and the ball fell to Efan Ekoku, a substitute who had been on the pitch for fewer than five minutes. Seaman was in no position to recover from that range.

Arsenal did and did not deserve this. They had been the more fluent of the sides for long stretches, which was to be expected, but they had demonstrated as little wit in trying to counter Wimbledon's singular methods as dozens of lesser sides before them over the years. Had Patrick Vieira not been forced to depart the proceedings with a hamstring injury (caused as he came to the end of a 40-yard run through the centre) and Dennis Bergkamp not also limped off, with a calf injury, they might have had the cutting edge required.

Then again, they might not. The Gunners' efforts to retain their Premiership title have been severely damaged in the past two weeks. They are lacking goals if not ideas. There are few finer sights around than Nicolas Anelka, their 19-year-old centre-forward. He is the slipperiest of customers, all blistering speed and blinding dummies, but it is a measure of his season that he is leading the strikers' table for most shots on target and for most shots off it.

He might have scored after a mere four minutes yesterday. Receiving the ball in a central position some 40 yards out he beat Dean Blackwell with a drop of the shoulder, ran towards the area, checked, shrugged off the centre-half again and then, just as you were drawing breath at these antics, found the angle he had created for himself too narrow.

A few minutes later Anelka pulled a pass back towards Bergkamp but the Dutch forward was advancing too quickly to make contact. Arsenal were not to come closer than that for the rest of the match, Dixon's 25-yard shot against the bar early in the second half notwithstanding.

Indeed, with both defences having set out their stalls it seemed that one of the quirky statistics involved in this fixture was about to be buried. Wimbledon have never had a goalless draw against Arsenal in a league match.

It was, of course, not the sort of preparation Arsenal required for their European Champions' League match against Lens at Wembley on Wednesday. Their manager, Arsene Wenger, insisted the domestic league remains their priority. He was unhappy with the goal, perhaps because of the defensive lapses but also because he felt Earle's hand played too significant a part. None of this stopped him conceding: "I think we were unlucky to lose it but on the other side we didn't do enough to win it."

This cut little ice with Wimbledon's manager, Joe Kinnear, who was as ebullient as his side. Pleased with beating Arsenal (only for the seventh time in their 25 league matches) he might have been but he was delighted to put yet another one over his side's critics. They had been well beaten by Chelsea the previous week and the notices were scathing.

Kinnear was none too happy about this. "It was important we didn't lose today. I would have settled for a draw before the start," he said. Scorned women have nothing on what scorned Dons can do.

Typically, they played a midfield which was marginally less deep than the defence and strove to absorb and then counter Arsenal's attacks. Not pretty, yet again, but enduringly effective.