FOOTBALL : Houston's Arsenal open fire

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The Independent Online
Crystal Palace 0

Arsenal 3

For all those sleazed-out after a sensational seven days of scandal- mongering, Selhurst Park was not the place to be on Saturday. Eric Cantona's bootprints still scar the place and the club now arriving were at the centre of football's investigations industry.

Arsenal having fired their chief rocket-man, it is a case now of "lift off, Houston". Under their new manager (at this rate the "until the end of the season" classification will quickly be dropped) the record reads two games played, two wins, four goals for, none conceded. So far, so very good and no hint of any wrong-doing.

This was a victory dedicated to the memory of a deposed and disgraced manager who always seemed to enjoy rich pickings at Palace's expense. It was also one underwrit by George Graham's two most recent signings and a rehabilitated figure coaxed back to his best by skilled and sensitive management.

Graham, who it was reported yesterday will base his claim for breach of contract on an alleged earlier agreement that Arsenal would pay him £750,000 if he was to resign at the end of the season, would have enjoyed the result and especially the performances of Chris Kiwomya, Glenn Helder and Paul Merson. We know the scenario: the self-satisfied smile to reporters he believed possessed nowhere near the wit and understanding to have an intelligent discussion about tactics, and the familiar riposte to those daring to criticise his transfer-market expertise.

In its place, refreshingly, was reasoned analysis from Stewart Houston, steely determination without the smugness and, glory be, a hint that the rigid, prosaic style that has made flair and individualism taboo words at Highbury, may now be relaxed.

It is a big job certainly but not so big that the new man feels the immediate need for a No 2. "I want to do what's best for Stewart Houston and the team who of course are the most important people in all this," he said. "They like familiarity and regularity and I don't want them looking at somebody new and thinking, what's he doing here?"

He was also quick to claim the credit for Arsenal's first goal. John Jensen slid a free-kick alongside the defensive wall for the turning Merson to poke the ball home. "We worked on that in training on Friday and the players executed it to a T," Houston said.

There were echoes of the old regime - "delighted with the clean sheet but I said to the lads, why three? Let's share the goals around a bit!" - but also a sign of something new and different: "I want the players to express themselves, because that's what people pay money to see, as long as they understand that expression must come within a team framework."

In Helder, their flying Dutchman, Arsenal would seem to have just that expressive individual and also one willing to do his share of legwork. Just as important - especialy with the Cup-Winners' Cup quarter-final with Auxerre only three days away - is the re-emergence of Merson. It was his balletic flick which released Kiwomya for his first of the afternoon while the best was left to last; Merson's powerful run from deep, an incisive one-two with Helder, the square pass to Kiwomya, another composed finish, cue rout.

It left Palace bereft of excuse. This was an insipid performance characterised by poor defending and woeful finishing, Chris Armstrong proving to be the chief culprit in that regard with a poor first-half header and a skyer after a Linighan-Seaman collision left the goal gaping.

Still prominent in both cup competitions, the overwhelming priority remains Premiership survival as Alan Smith continually reminds his youngsters. "I build the players up and I get the impression they think they have made it," he said. "They most definitely haven't."

Fighting talk, but are Palace already resigned to their fate? Why else would their match programme print the Endsleigh League First Division table?

Goals: Merson (24) 0-1; Kiwomya (39) 0-2; Kiwomya (78) 0-3.

Crystal Palace (4-5-1): Martyn; Humphrey, Shaw, Coleman, Gordon; Patterson (Dyer, 35), Southgate, Pitcher, Newman (Matthew, 71), Salako; Armstrong. Substitute not used: Wilmot (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Linighan, Bould, Winterburn (Morrow 42); McGoldrick, Jensen, Schwarz, Helder; Kiwomya, Merson. Substitutes not used: Parlour, Bartram (gk).

Referee: K Morton (Bury St Edmunds).