Football: Grateful for Petit mercies

Goals from Parlour and Overmars put nervy Arsenal 2 Coventry City 0 Parlour 16 Overmars 80 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 38,073Arsenal within one point of United
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The Independent Online
WHAT THIS game needed was some sunshine. A spray of rays to warm the soul, revive the mood of France 98 and quicken the pulses. Instead, the weather was as cold and grey as the football itself and the outcome was agonisingly predictable. Arsenal won, moved within a point of Manchester United at the summit of the Premiership, but did little to suggest a double Double is genuinely in prospect in out-powering a weakened, if spirited, Coventry side.

Unfortunately, for players and spectators, it was not a pretty sight - as Arsene Wenger admitted. "It was difficult for us," the Arsenal manager said. "They didn't let us play. And we lacked sharpness. But, again, it was a good performance by my players at the back."

Indeed it was. Goals in each half by Ray Parlour and Marc Overmars may have decided the outcome, but it was the ancient English oaks in the middle of Arsenal's defence who held firm when it was stormy.

Coventry, scuttling and scuffling just like their manager, Gordon Strachan, were unlucky in many respects not to gain some reward. Deprived of Noel Whelan and John Aloisi through suspension and George Boateng by injury, the Sky Blues were forced to play a sombre smothering game with five in midfield, hoping that Darren Huckerby's pace would find them a way through on the counter. Alas, for them, it did not work out on a day when they needed a break in more ways than one.

Instead of good luck, however, Coventry's perennial strugglers were dealt misfortune in spades. Denied a first-half penalty when David Seaman bundled down Stephen Froggatt, they lost Roland Nilsson in the second half when he was carried off on a stretcher with two broken ribs and a punctured lung, following an aerial clash with Emmanuel Petit.

"It was an honest challenge by two brave boys," said Strachan afterwards, making it clear there was no malice involved. Asked about his team's unambitious approach, Strachan said it was forced upon him by circumstances.

As Nilsson went to hospital for treatment - "he was struggling to breathe and it was very worrying for everyone," said Strachan - Arsenal were also counting the cost of a combative contest, riddled with niggling physical encounters.

Lee Dixon, making his 500th appearance for the Gunners, lasted only half an hour before limping off with an ankle injury courtesy of one early heavy tackle. His departure forced Arsenal into a reshuffle which reduced their potency, as Parlour dropped into the right-back position and Fredrik Ljungberg came into midfield.

By then, however, Arsenal were one up thanks to Parlour. Overmars and Petit had both wasted early openings before the midfielder, who has been called up to the England squad by Kevin Keegan, demonstrated his quality in scoring his fifth goal of the season.

Receiving the ball on the right of the Coventry penalty area, he drifted inside and used the outside of his right foot for a low shot beyond Magnus Hedman in the manner of Dennis Bergkamp. "He wouldn't have scored like that a year ago," said Wenger, proudly.

The goal triggered sporadic shafts of colour. Bergkamp, in slow motion, brought the ball down from on high but shot wide. Paul Telfer began to over-contest the issue and became the first man booked for a foul on Patrick Vieira. Later he was lucky to escape a red card for retaliating aggressively after being fouled by Nigel Winterburn, who was cautioned. Reports that the same pair fought in the tunnel at half-time were denied.

Five minutes before the interval, Froggatt was sent flying by Seaman after successfully pursuing the ball through a crowded area towards Arsenal's goal. It was a dangerous situation and both Arsenal and their goalkeeper were lucky to escape unpunished.

After the interval Muhamed Konjic was booked for a foul on Bergkamp. Amid all this petty mediocrity strode a subdued Petit, making his last Arsenal appearance before starting a three-match suspension.

Sent off four times in 17 months, linked with a move to Italy in the summer, the French World Cup winner did his best to tip-toe through all the tackles and avoid more trouble, yet still contributed several impeccable challenges, some lofty distribution and two good attempts on goal before his unfortunate clash with Nilsson.

After that, both sides seemed to lose some heart and vigour but the arrival of Nwankwo Kanu, as a substitute for Nicolas Anelka, enlivened Arsenal once again and brought their second goal. The Nigerian had been on the pitch for only five minutes when he embarked on a loose-limbed slalom through the middle of Coventry's previously resolute rearguard.

Kanu appeared to stumble, but found sufficient space and composure to find Overmars free on his left with a well-weighted pass. The Dutch winger shuffled inside on to his right foot and an angled shot low into the net did the rest.

Kanu's late shaft of light left a cosy glow on the afternoon, but it was not enough to hide the truth. Unless United suffer fatigue badly in the final weeks or Arsenal raise their level of performance, this Highbury side are unlikely to win their FA Cup semi-final next month or thwart the Mancunians in the last gallop towards the title. However, Coventry, as Wenger agreed, possess sufficient spirit to avoid the drop.