Football: Everton 0 Arsenal 2 - Wenger bemoans Petit loss

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The Independent Online
THE CONJECTURE after this match revolved around Arsenal's pluses and minuses. Did the loss of Emmanuel Petit for three matches thanks to his third sending-off of the season wholly negate the victory that kept them within four points of the Premiership leaders, Manchester United? Even Arsene Wenger seemed unsure.

The Arsenal manager described the outcome as "three important points" but then proceeded to bemoan at length the loss of his French midfielder whose two bookable offences had ensured he will miss two Premiership matches and the FA Cup semi-final against United. The double Double has been undermined by an unwanted treble.

Only the previous day Wenger had said the Gunners would need Petit and compatriot Patrick Vieira working in tandem for the rest of the season if they could confidently train their sights on honours this season and the statistics bear him out. Arsenal have lost just nine Premiership games in the last two seasons and the two Frenchman have started in only four of them together.

So Petit's loss for three out of a potential 11 fixtures is a grevious one, particularly as it is likely to take time after his ban for the Frenchman to tap into his full power. He was making his first start for six weeks and pertinently both his bookings arose because his first touch let him down, causing him to lunge dangerously after the ball.

"The big concern for me is that he doesn't get into the pace of the game," Wenger said. "You could see today that he'd missed some games and his reactions were not right which is why he was sent off. The two yellow cards were not for bad fouls, they were just a little bit late."

Petit's dismissal may or may not dictate Arsenal's fate this season but there was no question the rhythm of Saturday's game was affected by red cards. Arsenal began superbly, took the lead with a goal from Ray Parlour that had been created by Marc Overmars sublime 50-yard pass and then, when Don Hutchison was sent off, dozed off secure in the knowledge they could win the game whenever they wanted.

Hutchison's crime was elbowing Martin Keown in the face off the ball and as the television and most of the crowd missed the incident the referee must be correct although the Everton manager, Walter Smith, added wryly: "There were no physical marks. Hutchison must have soft elbows."

Whether Mr Rennie remained so for the rest of the afternoon is debatable because he was booed off the pitch at half and full-time and unfavourable critiques later filled a large part of Radio Five Live's Six-O-Six. It was difficult to find fault with the sendings-off in the current climate but it was easy to lament the inconsistencies that littered the legislature of this game.

Why, for example, did Tony Adams not receive a second yellow card when he clearly scythed through Ibrahima Bakayoko from behind when Sepp Blatter and Fifa were encouraging red cards for this offence during the World Cup? How did David Unsworth stay on the pitch when he brought Ray Parlour down in the area when the Arsenal player had a clear run on goal?

Good sense dictated neither player should go but that quality is singularly absent from the dictates coming from Fifa and you could hardly detect much leniency in either Hutchison or Petit's dismissals. Follow the letter of the law by all means, but spectators become angry and bewildered when officials pick and choose when to stray off that path and if there had to be two red cards on Saturday then there should have been four.

The mathematics also equated to the number of goals because Arsenal's second, scored by Dennis Bergkamp from the penalty spot, was the least their superiority deserved. The champions looked tired, Wenger said afterwards and, as he noted with a smile, "Manchester United keep winning, unfortunately".

This week, though, United have to fly to Milan while Wenger's team have the week off. If tiredness does become a factor, it will favour Arsenal. Even without Petit.

Goals: Parlour (16) 0-1; Bergkamp (68, pen) 0-2.

Everton (4-4-2): Myhre; Dunne (Grant, 27), Watson, Materazzi, Ball; Weir, Dacourt, Unsworth, Barmby (Jeffers, 73); Bakayoko (Cadamarteri, 73), Hutchison. Substitutes not used: Short, Simonsen (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars (Upson, 87); Bergkamp, Anelka (Vivas, 62). Substitutes not used: Kanu, Diawara, Manninger (gk).

Sendings-off: Everton Hutchison; Arsenal Petit. Bookings: Everton Dacourt, Unsworth; Arsenal Adams.

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).

Man of the match: Parlour.

Attendance: 38,049.