SOUTHAMPTON: Bottom, no wins, one draw, 21 goals conceded, no goals scored away. No hope against Arsenal? Funny game, football. In spite of two rejected penalty claims, the champions deservedly took the lead at Highbury yesterday. And then Southampton sent on Matt Le Tissier who set up an equalising goal that had the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, later complaining that his team lacked concentration and the ability to "kill" matches that they had at their mercy.
The trouble with having a dead weekend in advance of England's lifeless performances is that it can destroy the continuity of the team regaining form or leave one that is in trouble worrying about whether things are going to get worse.
Wenger, who says it is "ridiculous" for leading international teams to play countries like Andorra, Luxembourg and the Faroe Islands and that there should be European Championship divisions, as in the Davis Cup, felt Arsenal suffered badly from having so many players away for 10 days on what for many was "unnecessary" international duty.
The absence of club activity since his team had impressively moved into third place with a 3-0 win over Newcastle had denied them an early opportunity to see whether Dennis Bergkamp had really recovered his scoring form, while for Southampton it was a long time to dwell on a 3-0 home defeat by Manchester United.
So there were questions for both teams, not helped in Arsenal's case by the absence of Emmanuel Petit or, for Southampton, the suspension of Carlton Palmer. And for them both, the buffeting diversion of a gale that sometimes had the ball changing direction spontaneously. But the direction of the game from the outset was against Southampton who were fortunate not to concede two penalties in the first 20 minutes.
A penetrating pass ahead from Nigel Winterburn allowed Nicolas Anelka to run purposefully through the penalty area only to be crudely intercepted by Ken Monkou ("200 per cent a penalty," Wenger claimed later). The referee, Jeff Winter, had a clear view but inexplicably viewed the challenge as inoffensive.
He had an even better sight of Arsenal's second appeal. Shortly after Mark Hughes had been shown a yellow card for fouling Patrick Vieira and Monkou had been booked for a rough challenge on Stephen Hughes, Matthew Oakley handled the ball immediately in front of the referee who again refused all of Arsenal's protests.
Mr Winter made himself even more unpopular locally by taking the name of Marc Overmars for dissent after it was he who had suffered a painful foul in a tackle with the nervous Philip Warner, who was soon to be substituted. Nevertheless, Arsenal got their compensation after 35 minutes when Bergkamp's shrewd ball into the penalty area was taken up by Anelka, who shot beyond Paul Jones for a rightful lead.
Jones had previously saved spectacularly, though a shade luckily, with his feet from Overmars whose mobility and tight control on an unfriendly afternoon were highlights. Had it not been for Jones, Southampton would probably have collapsed. Being the last line of defence when your team's intention is damage limitation is no fun but at least he did it in style.
Eventually, of course, Southampton brought on Le Tissier, more in desperation than hope perhaps, but you can never tell with this most frustrating of talents. He had been on the field for only a minute when he delivered Southampton's most inventive and accurate pass to release David Howells, who punished Arsenal not only for their missed chances but progressive lethargy in midfield. His shot tore past David Seaman who until then had rarely been involved.
Having achieved more than they had a right to expect, Southampton took no adventurous chances with their game and quickly reverted to a holding job in their own half.
Arsenal's enormous possession was all very well but in terms of originality too much was left to Overmars. Bergkamp looked no more pleased with his game than he had in early season. Southampton were delighted.