Football: Henry stays calm to get even

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The Independent Online
Arsenal 1 Wimbledon 1

Henry 61 Cort 7

Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 38,052

ARSENAL WERE nominated Team of the Century this week. Quite what that makes Wimbledon is open to debate. Clearly, the news of Arsenal's aristocracy had not reached the nether reaches of south London. With varying degrees of finesse, Wimbledon continued their glorious defiance of the odds at Highbury, snatching an early lead through Carl Cort on a ground where they have enjoyed some of their finer moments, if not in the last two visits, and clinging on to it like a pickpocket with a purse.

For a depleted Arsenal, it was a frustrating afternoon; for Wimbledon, confirmation of a recent revival and compensation for their midweek disappointment at Bolton. Thierry Henry's equaliser prompted a frenetic final half-hour, but, uncharacteristically, Arsenal's pressure lacked cohesion and with Nwankwo Kanu, jeered before kick-off and sporadically during the game because of his reported wage demands, wasting the best chances, Arsenal were unable to turn their overwhelming territorial advantage into goals.

In their last Double season, Arsenal's fortunes turned around this time in the calendar and with Leeds, Sunderland and Manchester United on the schedule before the end of January, Arsenal can afford few more slips. There were excuses. The central features of the famous back four were absent, Martin Keown not risked after coming back from injury, and Tony Adams a late flu victim, Dennis Bergkamp is due back shortly and Patrick Vieira is suspended, but a squad of Arsenal's depth should be able to cope rather more intelligently with a team of Wimbledon's limited, if admirable, virtues.

To be fair, for all their reliance on moving the ball forward quickly, Egil Olsen's side are a more attractive proposition than some of their predecessors. The philosophy has not changed much, but the essential spirit remains constant and in Cort, Jason Euell and Marcus Gayle, they have players of genuine talent and no little pace. "We put the ball forward, but didn't run enough," Olsen said. "But I admire my team. They give everything."

Had Kanu been anywhere near his best, Arsenal would surely have ended the last Saturday fixture of the century with a significant victory. Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, was rather more buoyant about the chances of keeping the Nigerian at Highbury, in contrast to the belligerent comments of the chairman in the press that morning.

"We're very close to signing a deal with him," Wenger said. "I have no doubt that his future is here and that the whole thing will be sorted out soon. Tonight, tomorrow, who knows?" But the spectre of Nicolas Anelka still looms over Highbury and the crowd's mood hovered on the edge of outright hostility. It did not help that Kanu wasted a free header from six yards as Arsenal pressed for the winner or that a succession of crosses from the left went begging for a centre-forward's boot. In consistently preferring the mercurial Kanu to the more experienced Davor Suker, Wenger could not make his admiration for Kanu more evident.

When he came on, Suker himself wasted at least two chances, one a firm right-foot shot from Silvinho's cross, a near carbon copy of the move which eventually brought Henry a neatly worked equaliser on the hour. By then, Wimbledon had long since forfeited their attacking options and Trond Andersen and Hermann Hreidarsson, the all-Scandinavian centre-back combination, were skillfully manning every available pump at the back. Most of Arsenal's most incisive attacks, in both halves, stemmed from the incursions of Nigel Winterburn, captain for the day, and Silvinho.

While Oleg Luzhny and Gilles Grimandi were still introducing themselves, Wimbledon might have scored moments before they did. Robbie Earle was inches away from connecting with a loose ball before Alex Manninger smothered the danger, but the Austrian goalkeeper was embarrassingly at fault when Cort flicked on Gayle's pinpoint cross. Bemused perhaps by Cort's near- post run, the ball clipped the inside of Manninger's left ankle as he stood transfixed on his line and rolled apologetically through his legs.

Wenger had every right to demand greater output from some of his more illustrious players, whatever the size of their wage packets. But, to an extent, the visitors played into Wenger's hands, withdrawing their wide men to reinforce the midfield and allowing Arsenal precious freedom to attack, which they did with great gusto but inexact science.

Lee Dixon should have equalised before half-time, but hit the clock with a left-foot shot, Kanu forced Sullivan into a succession of decent saves and Marc Overmars came belatedly to life to exploit Wimbledon's increasing desperation. John Hartson, on his return to Highbury, kept up a permanent crusade against Arsenal's French legion, riling both Grimandi and Emmanuel Petit with his robust presence. But Wimbledon were happy to preserve their own unofficial title. The great survivors of the century.