Football: Gunners wide of the target

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The Independent Online
Arsenal. . . . . . .1

Wright pen 45

Oldham Athletic. . .1

Sharp 4

Attendance: 26,524

YOU had to fancy Arsenal in the closing stages yesterday. They poured forward in a spirited late attempt to capture victory and lined up for shooting practice: Ian Wright missed three, Ray Parlour headed one wide, and Kevin Campbell missed with his head and then hit the crossbar. Indeed, the openings came so quickly that George Graham was probably being conservative when he said that they would normally have had three or four.

Five minutes of goalmouth frenzy, however, was not enough. Until then, for all their embarrassing wealth of possession, Arsenal lacked the midfield spark to break down Oldham's five-man sweeper system.

Jon Hallworth was an impressive figure in Oldham's charmed goal, but it was hardly surprising that Paul Merson's every warm-up run along the touchline was greeted with more enthusiasm than anything the prosaic David Hillier and John Jensen managed to create in the centre of the park.

For defensive steadiness though, Arsenal's back four have been unmatchable in recent weeks. There's a lot you can do in nine-and-a-half hours - you could have boarded a plane and been in place for England's first cricket match in the West Indies today, or indeed you could have watched Arsenal claim six consecutive clean sheets. With Oldham having only scored six Premiership goals away from home, you might have expected David Seaman's slate to remain unsullied. That it didn't was largely down to his own poor positioning for Oldham's fourth-minute free-kick. Rick Holden rolled the ball to Graeme Sharp whose shot, for all its spectacular curl and dip, would not have been out of reach for a keeper on his line.

From that moment, though, the game was all Arsenal's - theirs to chase and theirs to squander. With his midfield impotent, Wright dropped deep, from where he tantalised and frustrated the Oldham defence - once inducing a foul tackle from Steve Redmond to which he spat back in reply.

You couldn't fault the way that Wright despatched Arsenal's equaliser from the penalty spot, though. Top left - no chance for Hallworth. You could, however, fault the referee's decision to award it, or at least Joe Royle could. From a goalmouth scuffle, Mike Milligan was judged to have handled the ball. 'Very harsh,' said Royle about a decision that denied Oldham what would have been a remarkable win.