Football: Exit Petit as little Charlton settle in

Arsenal 0 Charlton Athletic 0 Attendance: 38,014
Click to follow
THE FANTASY endures. Charlton Athletic, up from the First Division and risen from the edge of penury, took advantage of Arsenal having their French World Cup star Emmanuel Petit sent off at Highbury yesterday to subdue the off-form champions and remain giddily high in the Premiership.

Fate had determined that Charlton's unanticipated start to the season, involving a 5-0 win over Southampton last weekend and a draw at Newcastle the previous week, would be severely questioned by a formidable fixture list that sees them go from facing the champions yesterday to challenging Manchester United on Wednesday week. Shades of last season when Barnsley conceded 12 goals to those teams early on and spent the rest of the season trying to convince themselves that they were not as bad as all that. Charlton had already done enough to know that they are not bad at all.

They arrived at Highbury lording it over the kings of the game and left in the same spirit. As they began they must have treasured a copy of the Premiership table that had them 12 places above United and also looking down on Arsenal and Liverpool. What was more, their top striker, Clive Mendonca, started with more goals (three) than Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and Dennis Bergkamp put together.

Mendonca's ability to hold the ball while awaiting support is almost as much value to Charlton as his finishing. It was that asset which allowed them to keep Arsenal occupied defensively for much of the first hour. By having Danny Mills and Shaun Newton closing in on Marc Overmars, Charlton clearly understood from where they were most likely to be attacked at pace. Even so, Overmars escaped them after 20 minutes of more or less equal possession. Sasa Ilic was just as quick to see the problem in his penalty area, meeting Overmars three yards out to bring Charlton deserved relief.

At that point Arsenal felt unable to commit themselves whole-heartedly to attack, and rightly so, since almost all of their forward movement broke down at the feet of Eddie Youds and Steve Brown. Indeed, although Arsenal built up a succession of corners, most of their brighter moves found someone trespassing in an off-side position. In fact, it was defender Lee Dixon who gave Charlton their most troubled moment of the first half with a drive that Ilic stretched well to turn away.

Much of Arsenal's discomfort derived from the fact that Bergkamp was ineffective. His poor World Cup has eaten into his spirit. When he did break free he rarely made much of the opportunity and more often than not lost possession. Encouraged by that, Charlton counter-attacked with impressive midfield industry that, just before half-time, ought to have brought a goal. John Robinson failed to take his chance and Mark Kinsella hit another wide.

After necessarily raising the tempo in the second half, Arsenal forced Charlton into some hasty interventions, one of which by Mills on Nicolas Anelka brought optimistic penalty appeals. It was enough to put Arsenal in a tetchy mood and when Brown clipped the legs of Patrick Vieira as he moved quickly through a gap, their second penalty appeals were even stronger. Yet both managers said later that the incident was outside the area. Brown escaped without even a free-kick from the referee, Graham Poll, while Petit was booked for arguing and within a minute sent off for petulantly tripping Newton.

So Arsenal were left trying to gain what they could from an already difficult situation but now with only 10 men. Dixon, Anelka and Vieira were replaced by Nelson Vivas, Christopher Wreh and Stephen Hughes but their freshness was not the answer to Arsenal's disadvantage in numbers, nor their lack of new ideas to harm Charlton, who have conceded only one goal in 13 matches. Seeing the opportunity to take from Highbury a prestigious and confidence enhancing point, obviously Charlton refused to contemplate more than the occasional foray into the Arsenal half, which David Seaman often guarded alone. Only once in the last 20 minutes was he called on for important action, saving Newton's header, and Arsenal fussed and fumed to the end of a most un-champion-like performance.