Football: Kanu's wasted penalty puts Arsenal in a spot

Fiorentina 0 Arsenal 0
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE UNION flag brought from north London to Florence claimed "AFC Ready Or Not". Arsene Wenger's team proved they were prepared in every way except for the crucial matter of taking scoring chances and began a new Champions' League campaign as they had done in Lens a year ago, by unnecessarily surrendering two points.

Nwankwo Kanu, a substitute for Davor Suker, was the worst offender, tamely hitting a penalty at Francesco Toldo 10 minutes from the end of an enjoyably open Group B game.

Last year, handicapped by suspension and injuries, Arsenal failed to progress beyond the first stage. On last night's evidence, at a ground where Fiorentina were unbeaten throughout the Serie A season, they could come through a section that also includes Barcelona and AIK Solna - if only sharper finishing could be added to traditional defensive solidity.

The time-honoured offside trap operated without so much as a creak, subjecting David Seaman's deputy, Alex Manninger, to no more than one uncomfortable moment. Alas, Arsenal also fell into the old disciplinary trap, collecting yellow cards for Patrick Vieira, Fredrick Ljungberg, Martin Keown and Suker that could prove almost as costly as the missed goals and points later in the competition.

Vieira, an otherwise admirable contributor, has now been cautioned in all four Champions' League games in which he has played. With his sidekick, Emmanuel Petit, still injured, Arsenal cannot afford to have him suspended again.

Ray Parlour and Lee Dixon were both missing, still paying the penalty for transgressions in last season's group matches, so Ljungberg played on the right of midfield as both sides set out with highly positive intentions. Fiorentina employed a 3-4-3 formation yet struggled throughout to make anything of such possession as they were allowed.

Arsenal's 1,000 followers, despite being caged in by huge fences, had a tolerable view of the goal their team were attacking in the first half and should have seen the ball in the net after only 11 minutes play. Ljungberg drifted in unmarked from the right to meet a low cross by Marc Overmars, whose blistered feet did not prevent him making some blistering runs down the left flank. The Swede side-footed his shot from eight yards out but Toldo got down to push it round a post.

There was a rare moment of anxiety at the opposite end after 32 minutes when Yugoslavia's Predrag Mijatovic met Manuel Rui Costa's cross with a header that Manninger just managed to parry. He could not hold the follow- up by the local hero, Gabriel Batistuta, either but got away with it.

A controversial challenge in each penalty area kept passions ablaze either side of half-time. Arsenal were convinced they should have had a penalty for Alessandro Pierini's lunge at Dennis Bergkamp, who showed few signs of his 850-mile car journey to Tuscany. Television replays, whether digital or analogue, apparently supported them. Fiorentina were equally certain that Batistuta was illegally grounded soon afterwards by Dixon's replacement, Oleg Luzhny.

Tony Adams missed a good chance by striking his left-footed shot over the bar as Overmars' corner fell perfectly for him beyond the far post.

Kanu might also have done better than heading another corner on to the top of the net as Arsenal continued to press forward in an almost one- sided second half. Ljungberg had a shot deflected wide and Kanu was closer, before passing up two invaluable points. His casual penalty kick, after Ljungberg had been brought down by the goalkeeper, allowed Toldo to become the hero of the Stadio Comunale by doing no more than falling to his left and sticking out his hands.

Wenger said: "Kanu was destroyed and couldn't say a word to any of the other players. You have to accept that even the greatest players in the world have missed penalties. It's part of the game." And so to Wembley.

Fiorentina (3-4-3): Toldo; Repka, Padalino, Pierini (Adani, 82); Di Livio, Rui Costa, Cois, Heinrich; Chiesa, Batistuta, Mijatovic. Substitutes not used: Taglialatela, Fircano, Rossitto, Balbo, Bressan, Amoroso.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Luzhny, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Ljungberg, Vieira, Grimandi, Overmars; Bergkamp (Henry, 81), Suker (Kanu, 60). Substitutes not used: Lukic (gk), Vivas, Silvinho, Malz, Upson.

Referee: H Krug (Germany).