Football: Kanu the inspiration for Arsenal

Middlesbrough 1 Arsenal 6

NWANKWO KANU should never have become a footballer. His father, a dealer in spare parts for cars, wanted him to be an engineer.

He might have been obliged to achieve his dad's ambition, of course, after suffering a little human engine trouble three years ago. Thanks to the spare part of a new aortic valve, however, the Nigerian is in fine footballing order once again.

In the smoothly functioning Arsenal goalscoring machine at Middlesbrough on Saturday, the 22-year-old Kanu was reminiscent of the teenager who had the football world at his feet before the fateful scan that almost consigned him to the scrapheap.

"Kanu has no future as a footballer," Professor Bruno Caru proclaimed upon detecting the heart valve defect two weeks after the prodigy's pounds 1.3m move from Ajax to Internazionale. Three years on, though, the reconditioned Kanu still has the promise of a sparkling future. He has a pretty dazzling present, too, as the 31,000 Teessiders and 3,000 Londoners in attendance at the Riverside on Saturday will readily testify.

From a fixture of historic note - Arsenal's most emphatic victory away from Highbury since 1935 and Middlesbrough's heaviest home defeat in their 100-year history - one flash of Kanu genius will linger in the memory long after the vital statistics have faded.

When, with an hour on the clock, the Arsenal No 25 nonchalantly flicked out his size 15 right boot to impudently back-heel Lee Dixon's curling low cross past the nonplussed Mark Schwarzer, he dipped into the Cruyff box of tricks. That fifth Arsenal goal, however, was not the only touch of class from the more recent Ajax graduate.

Kanu's first goal - Arsenal's third, which effectively put the game beyond Middlesbrough's reach in first-half injury time - was an equally revealing illustration of the African's deceptive subtlety. He may seem languid and awkwardly leggy but he has a gazelle-like stealth and a sublime touch, as he showed in spinning away from two markers, threading the ball out to Nicolas Anelka and then side-stepping the unfortunate Dean Gordon before stroking the return pass into the net.

"Today Kanu showed what a great player he is," Arsene Wenger enthused. "He was outstanding. His influence on the game was amazing.

"His confidence was very low when he arrived at the club, but he has improved a lot physically," the Arsenal manager added. "He showed that today. But the best, I am sure, is yet to come. We will see more from him next season."

That must be a reassuring prospect for Wenger as he strives to hold on to Anelka, the other Gunner who twice hit the bull's-eye in what proved to be an afternoon of target practice.

Whether Arsene's Arsenal can keep the Premiership title also remains to be seen, though the stunningly impressive manner in which they hit top spot for the first time this season was a six-goal statement of intent that will have been duly noted across the Pennines down Matt Busby Way.

It certainly made an impact on one Old Trafford old boy. "It was the best performance against us since I've been manager at Middlesbrough," Bryan Robson proclaimed. "This Arsenal team has got to be up there with the Liverpool of the 1970s and with the Manchester United of recent years."

Saturday's goal feast, five days after Arsenal's 5-1 thrashing of Wimbledon, was achieved with Dennis Bergkamp on the sidelines. Yet the striking assets in Wenger's side are by no means restricted to his forward line. The pivotal performance at Middlesbrough was Patrick Vieira's. It was the French midfielder who prompted the masterclass, flicking the ball over Neil Maddison's head and setting up Anelka to win the third-minute penalty that put Arsenal in front and imperiously in command.

It was Vieira's challenge on Dean Gordon and invitational ball to Anelka that yielded the second goal, too. And it was his pass to Anelka on the half-way line and side-footed shot in the goalmouth that started and finished the sweeping move that produced the glorious fourth.

It could hardly have been bettered, but it was - by Kanu's party piece two minutes later. "Boring, boring Arsenal," the travelling Gooners sang. More like awesome, awesome Arsenal.

Goals: Overmars (pen 3) 0-1; Anelka (38) 0-2; Kanu (45) 0-3; Vieira (58) 0-4; Kanu (60) 0-5; Anelka (78) 0-6; Armstrong (87) 1-6.

Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Vickers, Pallister, Cooper (Kinder, 36); Stockdale (Summerbell, 61), Mustoe, Maddison (Armstrong, 71), Townsend, Gordon; Ricard, Deane. Substitutes not used: Beresford (gk); Campbell.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Parlour, Petit (Hughes, 86), Vieira, Overmars (Diawara, 70); Kanu (Vivas, 79), Anelka. Substitutes not used: Lukic (gk), Grimandi.

Referee: M Riley (Leeds). Bookings: Middlesbrough: Ricard, Summerbell.

Man of the match: Vieira.

Attendance: 34,630.

PREMIERSHIP TITLE RUN-IN

TOP THREE

P W D L F A Pts

Arsenal 34 19 12 3 54 15 69

Man Utd 32 19 10 3 72 32 67

Chelsea 33 17 13 3 49 26 64

REMAINING FIXTURES

MANCHESTER UNITED: 1 May: Aston Villa (H). 5 May: Liverpool (A). 8 May: Middlesbrough (A). 12 May: Blackburn (A). 16 May: Tottenham (H).

CHELSEA: 1 May: Everton (H). 5 May: Leeds (H). 8 May: Tottenham (A). 16 May: Derby (H).

ARSENAL: 1 May: Derby (H). 5 May: Tottenham (A). 8 May: Leeds (A). 16 May: Aston Villa (H).

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