Football: Highbury salute to Suker

Arsenal rediscover touch in time for European challenge; Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 1 Suker 45, 49, Kanu 82 Joachim 44 Half- time: 1-1 Attendance: 38,093
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The Independent Online
ARSENAL HEAD for Europe in jaunty mood. On a London day of Florentine sunshine they blew aside the dark clouds of recent high-profile defeat and warmed up for Tuesday's Champions' League opener in imposing fashion.

Davor Suker - on his full debut - was their hero, scoring twice in a game which, despite Arsenal's complete domination, was tipped in their favour only by a letter-of-the-law decision from the referee David Elleray. Villa's subservience was such, though, that they could have few complaints overall.

The match-turning moment occurred in the first five minutes after the break. The contest was all square and the visitors were retrenching themselves for a second period of backs-to-the-wall defending.

David James in the Villa goal - having relieved himself of goal-kicking duties after gathering a knee injury in midweek training - caught Suker's flick-header from a right-wing corner. As his colleagues moved upfield, James searched vainly for an outlet reachable by throw. None was visible and, without the capacity to kick, James stood helplessly as Elleray whistled for time-wasting.

From eight yards out, Dennis Bergkamp rolled the subsequent free-kick to Suker who, ignoring a goal full of Villa defenders, lashed a left-footed drive into the roof of the net.

At once, James was withdrawn in favour of the 22-year- old Finnish debutant Peter Enckelman, an apparent case of the horse having long since bolted before the stable door was locked. Enckelman's performance - including laudable stops from Silvinho and Ray Parlour - suggested that he might have been trusted to come on earlier.

Villa's coach, Steve Harrison, revealed afterwards that the possibility of changing goalkeepers at half-time had been discussed, but James's overall standard had won that debate and now there was a feeling that Villa's treatment had been harsh.

As Harrison said: "He wasn't trying to gain an advantage; it wasn't deliberate time-wasting; he was genuinely trying to release the ball." That none of his defenders offered him a chance to do so reflected poorly.

From the outset, like the heat, Arsenal's momentum was unremitting; Villa's response no more than a wispy cloud. Suker quickly marked himself out as the focal point of each successive attacking wave. His close-range volley was charged down by Ugo Ehiogu; his glide on to Bergkamp's releasing touch was halted by Southgate's splendid tackle; his punchy, low drive was blocked by James.

When his goal inevitably arrived, the only surprise was that it merely drew Arsenal level. They had fallen behind when Julian Joachim, starved even of the tiniest scraps on which strikers depend, was finally fed a juicy morsel by Paul Merson. Stung by the injustice of it all, Arsenal equalised instantly. Bergkamp's finesse created the opening for Suker's rising shot.

The second half followed much the same one-sided pattern as the first and, after Suker's second goal, there was rarely a moment when a home win did not seem certain. Nwankwo Kanu was afforded the privilege of confirming it when he met the last of Marc Overmars' flights down the flank.

A flurry of late high-profile substitutions underlined how much better equipped Arsenal are for Europe this time. Bergkamp - only a supporting cast member here - was one of those withdrawn early. Even as you read this, his fast car is pointed at Florence.