Football: Hughes lets opportunity slip

FA Premiership: Weakened Gunners almost fall victim to United old boy
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The Independent Online
Southampton 0 Arsenal 0

Attendance: 15,255

EASTER VISITS are often done out of family duty. This one by Arsenal to the poor relations on the South Coast is one that Arsene Wenger's men couldn't wait to get away from as their hosts hustled them and, on occasions, bullied them, to the point of submission.

The fact that the champions departed a household which has been inhospitable to so many of their well-heeled guests, still clutching a point on a day when Manchester United were similarly frustrated at Wimbledon, should have been regarded as a significant bonus. Indeed, had United's old boy Mark Hughes converted one of two good chances he could have heaped embarrassment on the Gunners. Hughes struck one shot against a post and also forced a quite sublime reaction save from David Seaman that confirmed him as England's No 1 goalkeeper.

Yet, Wenger, who is rarely anything but myopic, did not quite see it as a point gained. "It is two points dropped," he declared. "We gave everything, but in this kind of game you must score from your chances. We were not clinical enough in our finishing."

This kind of game was one in which Southampton made evident their intent from the start that this would be more of a dockers' back-street dust- up than an officers' ball. There would be no standing on ceremony from Dave Jones' men, admiring the strategies of Wenger's midfield generals. Ray Parlour, understudying the suspended Emmanuel Petit in central midfield, and Patrick Vieira, responded diligently enough to the physical challenge from Southampton's midfield. But the thoroughfare from there through to Nicolas Anelka was frequently as congested as the West Country on a Bank Holiday and he was rarely presented with the opening to extend his tally of 14 goals.

Arsenal have now not conceded a goal in seven hours 43 minutes. They clung on, just, to that proud defensive claim, but it was their futile quest for the crucial winner to pressurise the Premiership leaders that should trouble Wenger more.

Without Petit, and with Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars having returned from Holland's midweek friendly against Argentina not with bunches of seasonal tulips but with 'flu and blisters respectively, Wenger placed his faith in the Nigerian Kanu, making only his second start for the Londoners and the Frenchman Kaba Diawara his first, with the ludicrously baggy-shorted Fredrik Ljungberg, Sweden's midweek scorer against Poland, foraging on the right.

It was not a conspicuous success. Kanu has made something of an impression when emerging as substitute, but here his somewhat laconic approach was out of context with the physical nature of the activity around him. Too often, this Kanu was floating, not making waves.

Diawara, too, has yet to acclimatise himself to the English game and Ljungberg, as buoyant as the Hindenberg on launch day before the interval, came rapidly down to earth afterwards and was substituted. The fact that Arsenal only manufactured one opportunity of distinction in the second half, an exquisite one at that with Anelka leaving Scott Hiley on his backside before squaring the ball for Kanu, who looked for precision when he should have opted for power.

The Southampton goalkeeper Neil Moss, replacing Paul Jones, who injured his back before Wales' midweek defeat against Switzerland, and Francis Benali managed to block the effort. It was only the second time this season that the 23-year-old goalkeeper had donned the gloves for Saints.On yesterday's evidence, he must have been astonished at how facile this goalkeeping job is, although the fact that it was is testimony to the preparation of Jones and the resilience of Ken Monkou and his fellow defenders.

"As soon as an Arsenal player with the ball lifted his head, they got a red and white shirt in their face," said Jones, in a satisfied tone. "Their players will know they've been in a game. We ruffled a few feathers, but there was nothing dirty."

There were few pleasantries however and constantly in the thick of the aggression was Hughes, who flattened Vieira, in the process gaining his 15th caution of the season, was felled by Tony Adams and had a running confrontation with Martin Keown. It was his kind of game, the type he relishes. Just a shame he squandered the most inviting chance of a game. With the goal beckoning the Welshman placed his shot against a post.

However, Hughes did nothing wrong with his second half attempt. He dived with typical courage to convert Hiley's cross but, with the Milton Road faithful ready to acclaim the goal, Seaman reacted with agility to thwart him at close range.

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