Football: Fever pitch as Arsenal go top

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The Independent Online
Arsenal 1 Anelka

Derby County 0

Attendance: 37,323

ARSENAL BEGAN at a stroll and ended in a panic yesterday, but just managed to take their turn at Premiership leapfrog, nipping back above Manchester United to regain the championship lead.

The holders played some pretty football, too much at times, but never looked like adding more than a couple of goals to the 11 they had scored against Wimbledon and Middlesbrough in their last two matches. In the event they got only one, from Nicolas Anelka after 13 minutes.

Together with a sharp spot from the referee, Neale Barry, and an excellent late save from David Seaman, it was enough move them a point clear of Manchester United. Their challengers still have a match in hand.

"It was difficult for us," said Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager. "Derby gave a lot, we suffered from the heat and our passing was poor. We needed that special strength at the back but, in the end, we got three points, three important points."

"We had to grind it out," added Nigel Winterburn. "They invited us on to them and when your passing is not spot on it is a struggle."

This fixture of a decade ago, when Arsenal won their first championship in 18 years, has gone down into Highbury lore, filed under Nightmares. It was the day, since immortalised in the print and film version of Fever Pitch, that Arsenal fans thought they had blown the title. Arsenal lost 2-1 and, though they stayed top, Liverpool (this was in the days they still challenged for titles) were made favourites.

Arsenal, of course, went on to win the title at Anfield but Manchester United were unlikely to be as forgiving, so the memory of that May afternoon in 1989 still lingered at Highbury yesterday, especially when the visitors looked like they may take a point in the closing minutes.

There was no excuse for complacency, the Arsenal back four, remarkably, was unchanged from that of 10 years ago, Martin Keown's suspension enabling Steve Bould to return.

Dennis Bergkamp was not among the starters, the form of Nwankwo Kanu and Anelka enabling Wenger to ease the Dutchman back to match action. Derby had less illustrious names on the bench but they did play three- up, though this move was as much defensive as offensive, the idea being to stop Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn rampaging down the flanks.

This ploy was disrupted after 13 minutes when Deon Burton pulled up with what appeared to be a hamstring strain as he sought to prevent Ray Parlour running onto a sumptuous Patrick Vieira pass.

Vieira had already rifled a shot over from 30 yards, but it was Parlour who opened Derby up, sliding an angled pass into the box which Anelka, slipping behind Jacob Laursen, thumped first-time inside the far post.

That seemed to be that. Pull out the deckchair, put on the shades and count the goals. However, Arsenal's players did much the same and the contest degenerated into an exercise in containment, County seeking to keep the goals down, Arsenal to conserve their energy for Wednesday's north London derby.

Emmanuel Petit, Parlour and Marc Overmars went close to adding a second while Lars Bohinen and Paulo Wanchope caused brief alarms at the other end, but the interval was reached without further excitement. Kanu, in particular, showed excellent feet, but Arsenal's movement was restricted by the heat and a similar languor appeared to afflict their passing.

The torpor briefly lifted at the start of the second half with a series of scrambles in the Derby area, but the pace slowed again and, after an hour, Derby began to harbour delusions of equality. They enjoyed periods of possession and almost levelled when Darryl Powell, one of several players giving valiant service out of position, volleyed just over.

Wenger, unimpressed by this, brought on Bergkamp to pep up his soporific team. Almost immediately Overmars worried Mart Poom with a cross-shot then, after a 70-yard counter-attacking run, just failed to deliver the final ball.

A series of substitutions increased the match's similarity to a friendly but then Derby "scored". Or rather, after Seaman spilled a Carbonari free- kick, Wanchope knocked it out of his reach with his hand - probably accidentally, then forced the ball home. Fortunately for Arsenal, the referee was still wide awake.

So, now, was everyone else. Both sides, and their fans, suddenly realised the game was still there to be drawn and, as Derby piled forward, panic gripped the home support. Some of the players were also affected but Seaman stayed cool and, when Wanchope beat Adams to a falling ball the goalkeeper was 15 yards off his line to block. The rebound fell to Marvin Robinson but his shot went wide and, with it, the hope of a Sunday bonus for watching Manchester United fans.

This is awards month at Highbury with every match being marked by a series of presentations. Yesterday it was the turn of Steve Braddock, the groundsman of the year; David Smith, a wheelchair-bound fan who was inducted into the Premier League Hall of Fame; and the elusive Anelka, who belatedly received the Professional Footballers' Association Young Player of the Year award.

Next time Arsenal play at home, on 16 May, they hope to be collecting another award, the FA Premier League title. After this Manchester United remain favourites but Arsenal are still very much in the hunt.

Goals: Anelka (14) 1-0.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars (Hughes, 76); Kanu (Bergkamp, 62), Anelka (Diawara, 78). Substitutes not used: Grimandi, Lukic (gk).

Derby County (3-4-3): Poom; Prior, Carbonari, Laursen; Delap, Bohinen (Murray, 68), Eranio, Powell; Burton (Harper, 13; Robinson, 78), Beck, Wanchope. Substitutes not used: Jackson, Knight (gk).

Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe).

Bookings: Derby: Delap, Carbonari, Murray, Prior.

Man of the match: Seaman.

Attendance: 37,323.