Football / FA Cup Final: A showpiece that suffered from flat batteries: The jewel in the crown of the English game lacks lustre as skill is stifled in a scrappy encounter and fatigue sets in during extra time

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Arsenal. . . . . . . . .1

Sheffield Wednesday. . .1

(Aet: score at 90min 1-1)

NO DISRESPECT to Tony Adams, or anyone else for that matter, but They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Like contestants in the old dance marathons, the Cup finalists are playing until they drop, and it would be no surprise to find Thursday's replay settled by the last man left standing.

In that event, hard luck Arsenal. It would be certain to go Sheffield Wednesday's way, with Carlton 'Duracell' Palmer still marching on, long after all the others had succumbed to fatigue.

Such an outcome would be entirely in keeping with Saturday's events, when the scrappiest of 1-1 stalemates was characterised by Palmer's proletarian virtues. The runners ruled; it was anything but OK.

It is a depressing thought that a match of such poverty was televised all over the world, as the showpiece of the English game. As an advert, it was only marginally preferable to Vinnie's video nasty.

Why so dire? Too much football, Part 40. Both teams were jaded and weary, having played two or three times a week of late and, with stress-related injuries biting deep, they were in no position to do themselves justice.

It is unlikely to get any better. On the contrary, both sides are committed to playing testimonial matches before Thursday, and if they do bring anything new to the replay, it is unlikely to be freshness.

Arsenal were suffering most towards the end of Saturday's two-hour slog, with Ian Wright, who was brought off, and Paul Merson in obvious distress, and Palmer may have struck a significant psychological blow late on, when he powered through Tony Adams - as strong in the last minute as he had been in the first.

There seemed to be substance, as well as bravado, behind Trevor Francis's claim that Wednesday had more left in their tank, and 'had got enough to beat them' on Thursday.

Unlike George Graham, who admits he is short of reinforcements, Francis could have the experienced Peter Shirtliff fit in time to play at centre-half, in place of Viv Anderson. At 36, the old warrior is feeling the pace more than most, and is troubled by a bruised knee. Wednesday may also have Danny Wilson back in midfield.

On the debit side, Francis is forced to ask Roland Nilsson to play two big games in the space of 24 hours, and will be keeping his fingers crossed that the Swedish right-back avoids injury in the World Cup tie against Austria on Wednesday.

Tired legs, tired minds, tired performances. On Saturday they did more to promote the cause of the shoot-out than anyone since John Ford and yet, ominously, both managers envisage more of the same.

Playing each other four times in a month, they are too well acquainted to come up with tactical surprises. It was sure to be a hard grind to the finish. Some invitation, eh?

Arsenal, no doubt, will continue to stifle Wednesday's passing game by piling bodies into midfield to deny them space. Smothering the opposition is hardly the most attractive of game plans, but in British football, where we have so few players good enough to create their own space, it is a common, and profitable, one.

If it is not to frustrate them again on Thursday, Wednesday need to dig the ball out of the cluttered midfield and spread it to the more open spaces on the flanks, where John Harkes and Chris Waddle have the beating of the Arsenal full-backs.

Playing Waddle inside in the first half on Saturday was counter-productive - a mistake born of timidity. Francis confessed that he had been fearful of the damage Paul Merson might do on the left, and had used Waddle to draw him into the middle.

He explained: 'The player who caused us most problems in the Coca- Cola final was Merson, and I didn't want him running the show again. I gave Chris a central role, knowing Merson would follow him in, and that also brought Palmer nearer to Merson. Chris wasn't as influential as he can be, but it did allow John Sheridan more time and space.'

In effect Waddle, a potential match-winner, was deployed as a decoy, to draw Merson away from the left flank. Timorous stuff. The plan achieved its limited objective, but at unreasonable cost. Merson was duly negated, but so was the Footballer of the Year, until he was moved out to the wing.

Played through the middle, he was easy prey for John Jensen, who provided an efficient screen in front of the Arsenal back four.

With Waddle, Sheridan and Merson - the flair players - subdued, it was a miserable spectacle, and yet a poor game produced an unusual number of high-class saves, and David Seaman had thwarted Waddle and Palmer before Wright headed Arsenal into a 20th-minute lead.

Paul Warhurst acquitted himself well in his old defensive station, but was beaten in the air when Wright climbed eagerly to profit from Andy Linighan's headed assist.

Second best in the first half, when their strikers were much too static, Wednesday improved after Waddle's redeployment, and deserved the thumping close-range goal with which David Hirst restored equality, on the hour.

Arsenal's response was predictable: they sent on Alan Smith and lofted the ball long, towards that artful forehead. Unprepossessing maybe, but up and under would have carried the day but for an outstanding save by Chris Woods, from Wright, in the 90th minute.

Ordeal by extra time, then, and they were dropping like flies - Wright and Waddle joining Ray Parlour and Anderson on the premature trudge to the bench. Merson and Nilsson might have spared us the replay, but now the ennui was such that Wednesday managed no more than token protest about Linighan's deliberate handball when Hirst and Mark Bright had him at their mercy.

After two long hours came blessed relief. It was all over. Graham said: 'There were a lot of tired, tired players out there.' True, but then there were countless millions who will have grown old watching it all.

Francis thought: 'From a tactical point of view, it was interesting, and it should be interesting on Thursday.'

Now there's a man easily pleased.

Goals: Wright (20) 1-0; Hirst (60) 1-1.

Arsenal: Seaman; Dixon, Winterburn, Linighan, Adams, Campbell, Wright (O'Leary, 90), Merson, Parlour (Smith, 64), Davis, Jensen.

Sheffield Wednesday: Woods; Nilsson, Worthington, Palmer, Hirst, Anderson (Hyde, 85), Waddle (Bart-Williams, 112), Warhurst, Bright, Sheridan, Harkes.

Referee: K Barrett (Coventry).

(Photograph omitted)

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