Football: Ince pain for Arsenal and Wright

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Liverpool 4 Arsenal 0

ARSENAL'S proud record was tarnished last night when Liverpool became the first team to beat them since December, but the new champions' worst moment at Anfield came when Ian Wright was injured in a bone-shuddering challenge by Paul Ince.

The incident, which was totally out of keeping with an occasion that had the air of an exhibition match, occurred midway through the second- half. Ince, who had scored twice and made another goal as Liverpool breached Arsenal's shadow side three times in 12 minutes, caught Wright on his right ankle.

The England striker, starting his first game since limping off at Port Vale in January, buckled under the impact of the tackle. He lay on the ground, writhing in obvious discomfort, before being carried off on a stretcher.

Arsene Wenger said later that Wright may have precautionary x-rays today, but otherwise sought to defuse the situation. Ince, the Arsenal manager believed, had not intended to hurt Wright. He also dismissed suggestions that Arsenal's record scorer might miss both the FA Cup final and the World Cup.

"Ian is not too bad and should be alright," Wenger said. "It has just touched a nerve but I don't think his ankle is damaged. He could even be back for the last game, at Aston Villa on Sunday.

"He was scared because it was a big, sharp pain. But I don't think it was a bad tackle. They are good friends and I don't think Ince would want to injure Ian."

With the benefit of slow-motion television replays, the challenge looked reckless. One suspected, however, that Wenger's calmness owed something to a desire to avoid the kind of controversy provoked by Alan Shearer's "accidental" kick at Neil Lennon.

Ironically, given the lack of competitive edge, Liverpool's Jason McAteer also had to be helped off. McAteer, who only recently returned after breaking his left leg - also in January - suffered severe bruising to the same leg in a challenge on Luis Boa Morte.

Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, was nonetheless pleased that Liverpool had confirmed a third-place finish.

In truth, it was a hollow victory. Arsenal started with only three of Sunday's title-clinching line-up, and capitulated badly after nearly half an hour of phoney war.

Ince drilled in the first goal from 18 yards after a sloppy pass by Christopher Wreh had set Liverpool on the attack. Within two minutes the Liverpool captain touched in his second at point-blank range after Arsenal failed to clear a free-kick by Stig-Inge Bjornebye.

Michael Owen volleyed a spectacular third following Ince's flick-on from a McManaman corner, the teenager's 18th goal of the season making him the Premiership's leading marksman. Owen looked set to make it 4-0 when Ince, despite being on a hat-trick, let him take the penalty after Matthew Upson pushed over McManaman. Alex Manninger saved the spot-kick.

Oyvind Leonhardsen completed the rout with a last-minute volley to send the Kop home happy. Liverpool thus became the only club to complete a double over the Gunners, but Wenger, wisely resting his more influential players, has his sights on an altogether more prestigious Double.

Anfield was generous in its acknowledgement of Arsenal's achievement, while Liverpool's players had formed a guard of honour as they took the field. The end-of-term mood was enhanced by the kind of witty singing which Liverpool once had under copyright, except that most of it came from the London contingent. But a banner proclaiming "Agent Johnson: Mission Accomplished,'' referring to the Everton chairman and his past incarnation as a Reds fan, proved that Liverpudlian humour lives on.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Friedel; McAteer (Thomas, 54), Babb, Harkness, Bjornebye; McManaman, Ince, Carragher, Leonhardsen; Owen, Riedle (Murphy, 90). Substitutes not used: Gudnason, Roberts, James (gk).

Arsenal (4-3-3): Manninger; Dixon, Grimandi, Bould, Upson; Parlour (Vieira, 65), Platt, Hughes; Wreh (Mendez, 71), Wright (Anelka, 65), Boa Morte. Substitutes not used: Marshall, Lukic (gk).

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).