Football: Gunners short of firepower

Arsenal 1 West Ham United 0 Overmars 7 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 38,098; Overmars pounces to raise the Premiership stakes for Arsenal as Highbury's low-scoring problem persists
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YOU COULD have sworn that this was a Boxing Day murder most foul; a day when Arsenal inflicted a quite brutal slaying. Yet, at the post- mortem there was hardly a mark on the body of their opponents; merely the single, fatal thrust of Marc Overmars in the seventh minute. Which may explain why you'll excuse most sceptics if they don't accept the inevitability of Arsene Wenger's team repeating this year's championship triumph.

At least not just yet, and certainly not with the knowledge that striker Nicolas Anelka, who has developed from a teenage enigma to become an integral component of Wenger's side, will be missing because of an ankle injury that caused his substitution after half an hour. It inevitably provoked questions about whether Wenger would seek to strengthen his side. The chief Gunner has long become immune to such enquiries. Would he buy? "I might go out tonight," he responded with a Gallic shrug and accompanying smile, before proceeding to downplay his suspected interest in Liverpool's Robbie Fowler.

While it must be stressed that the opposition manager, Harry Redknapp, had rather more faith in the champions - "They're genuine title contenders. There are four runners and they're one of them. They did it last year and I wouldn't write them off" - you suspect such a benign view may have been born, in part, out of a belief that his team had managed to depart Highbury with a rather less embarrassing scoreline than last season's 4-0 humiliation.

For most of the first half Arsenal had been in utterly rampant mood, with Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit as imposing on the Highbury landscape as the Eiffel Tower and L'Arc de Triomphe are on Paris, Overmars exposing the weakness of Trevor Sinclair - as a wing-back, rather too much the winger and not enough a back - while his compatriot Anelka exhibited just why Wenger sacrificed Ian Wright to enhance the Parisian's future.

In contrast, Wright, named captain for the day on the ground where he scored an Arsenal record of 185 goals, and fellow striker and Highbury old boy John Hartson, were something they so rarely are, models of anonymity, under the expert supervision of Steve Bould and Martin Keown. Arsenal had not just been in charge; they had been control freaks in a period all too evocative of last season's title run-in back in the spring.

Even by the most conservative estimates, Arsenal mustered another 10 opportunities before the interval once Overmars had received the ball from Ray Parlour on the left, cut in past the seemingly mesmerised Sinclair and Frank Lampard, and driven the ball past Shaka Hislop for the only goal. If he was slightly culpable, the keeper then proceeded to be at his most courageously defiant, though the majority came from Anelka or Dennis Bergkamp, the former at times trying to score from angles so acute it would have required a magician's intervention; the latter believing, like too many politicians, that if you put a spin on it, anything can be achieved.

For their part, West Ham's Steve Lomas struck one effort over the bar, another grotesquely wide. That was it. As one particularly jaundiced press man with an affinity with West Ham wryly observed of Sinclair, the player arrested for alleged criminal damage after some pre-Christmas revelry, "they should have kept him in the nick". But it was no time for interval rollickings. "Their movement and passing were exceptional and we couldn't cope with it," Redknapp explained. "They're a Double-winning team and they've got their best players back."

At the start of the second half, even Arsenal goalkeeper Alex Manninger joined in. He nearly deceived his counterpart with a huge wind-assisted kick that landed on top of the roof of the back-pedalling Hislop's net. A few minutes later, he repeated the effort. How the North Bank loved it. "He's had more shots than West Ham," they chanted, and it wasn't far from the truth.

Recently, on a re-run of classic Match of the Days the BBC dusted down Leeds v Southampton from the Seventies out of the archives. It was the afternoon when Don Revie's team of Giles, Bremner, Clarke et al took the proverbial out of their rivals, with all manner of deft flicks and touches. Leeds were 7-0 up at the time; Arsenal had the Gaul, so to speak, to attempt the same with a one-goal advantage. You sensed they might live to rue their impudence. When, in the final quarter of an hour, Wright challenged in the air for a cross by Sinclair, then when he appeared in space to the left, and finally when he and Eyal Berkovic managed to spurn the most inviting opening in front of goal, there appeared every chance that West Ham would force an equaliser which only the most myopic home supporter would have been churlish enough to deny them.

Fortunately for the North Londoners, Manninger displayed excellent positioning and agility and Bould remained in "unbelievable" form, as his manager expressed it. "We've got to be more clinical," Wenger said. "It is unbelievable that we got out with three points considering the chances we missed. It shows the importance of having a very good defence." On such a basis - only 11 Premiership goals conceded - are championships won. But until that elusive new forward arrives doubts will remain.

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