WHO CAN eclipse the sun kings of Old Trafford? On the evidence of this match, Arsenal, after being so narrowly shaded by the Treble-winners in both League and Cup last season, are going to demand considerable patience from their hugely demanding patrons if they are to shade Manchester United.
The only action taking place in the vicinity of Old Trafford yesterday was the ritual slaughter of England cricketers. So in Manchester United's absence from the opening Saturday, Arsenal began as they had in the early part of last season, deficient in poise and venom in front of goal, fired by copious quantities of team spirit and endeavour, but lacking the panache and power that United possess in abundance.
It was not until added time that Arsene Wenger's men secured a victory which was not undeserved, but, for most of this encounter, was distinctly unlikely. Thierry Henry, last week's pounds 11m signing from Juventus who emerged as a half-time substitute to a rapturous Highbury reception, launched a powerful header which the defender Frank Sinclair succeeded merely in nodding into own net. It evoked images of the Nou Camp and Bayern Munich in June as Martin O'Neill's men, who at one stage had held a 1-0 advantage, courtesy of 34-year-old Tony Cottee, collectively fell to the turf in disbelief.
In the corresponding fixture in February, Leicester felt the full force of a Nicolas Anelka hat-trick in a game which Arsenal won 5-0. Yesterday, the Gaul with gall was assimilating himself into the Spanish culture having declined and derided English hospitality. Though it would pain anyone at Highbury to admit it, they sorely missed him. Not until the introduction of Henry, followed by Marc Overmars 20 minutes later, did Arsenal seriously examine the prowess of Leicester's only close-season buy during a summer in which there have been pounds 140m of Premiership transfers swilling in the trough - the goalkeeper Tim Flowers.
As the Arsenal manager conceded: "After 20 minutes, I thought three points would be difficult; with 25 minutes to go I thought three points would be impossible."
Leicester's misadventure did not end there. Steve Walsh and Emile Heskey both departed by stretcher, the latter after sustaining what appeared to be a serious neck injury in a challenged with Gilles Grimandi, the one uncertain component of an otherwise sterling Arsenal back four. The pounds 10m-plus rated Heskey, who has just signed a new contract, was despatched, wearing a neck brace, to the Whittington Hospital in Highgate for X-rays, though he was later allowed home. O'Neill deemed a possible period without the England striker as "a hell of a blow to us. We'll be in deep trouble''.
In truth, it was a fitful contest in which the quality that was exemplified by Nwankwo Kanu and the admirable Dennis Bergkamp, who came straight into the side having missed all of Arsenal's pre-season, played a supporting role to the virtues of tight marking and shuddering challenges. "He hasn't played because of a slight injury but his intelligence and class got him through," said Wenger of the 1998 Footballer of the Year. "He was hungry for the ball, but still lacks a bit of sharpness."
The big kick-off has come as a welcome respite. Now ball - and the occasional limb - are getting a thrashing, rather than the soul of the old game itself. The summer has been sullied by players cynically abusing their power, most notably Arsenal's Frenchman, who has in effect absconded. The Highbury generals, Wenger and vice-chairman David Dein, have sought to stand firm, but have ultimately been forced to release a player who was part of their long-term plans.
At least the compensation of pounds 23m was not to be sneered at, and Wenger has applied substantial filler to the gaping hole left in his assault force with the prolific Croatian Davor Suker (unlikely to regain full fitness until mid-August) and the Frenchman Henry. In the closing minutes, the latter displayed some of the skills that so impressed Wenger, demonstrating pace a-plenty to make the most of openings provided by Kanu and Bergkamp.
When the computer delivered this first fixture at last season's runners- up, O'Neill must have raised his fists to skies, Basil Fawlty-style, and cried "Thank you very much, God." At the time his side took that fearful beating last season, Arsenal were in full cry for the championship, and there was simply no place for the under-strength Foxes to hide. This time, they made clear their intention of denying Arsenal space from the start. Despite some clever inter-linking between the deceptively languid Kanu and the outrageously gifted Bergkamp, Flowers had been virtually redundant in the first period.
After the interval, Henry made his first entrance on the stage. He was felled in the penalty area by Andrew Impey but referee Alan Wilkie waved play on. But it was not long before the 21-year-old began to win over any doubters among the faithful. He began on the left, replacing Fredrik Ljungberg, and then, when Overmars was introduced for Ray Parlour, he was switched to the right, where he looked much happier.
Yet it was Leicester who forced a goal out of nothing when an error by Grimandi allowed Steve Guppy to cross tantalisingly for 34-year-old Cottee to stab the ball home at the near post. Arsenal's equaliser, nine minutes later, was the result of Martin Keown's long cross, headed back unwittingly by the Leicester substitute Gerry Taggart which gave the lurking Bergkamp the chance to apply a typically neat finishing touch and set up that frantic and fortuitous finish for the home side.Reuse content