Football: Merson the heart and soul

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The Independent Online
Arsenal. . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Merson 47

Liverpool. . . . . . . . . . . .0

Attendance: 35,556

EUROPE is all that really matters and remains for Arsenal this season, and at Highbury yesterday it showed. They rested Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn, Alan Smith and Paul Davis for the whole game, while most of those who did play performed for only two- thirds of it.

Not so long ago Liverpool would have wished Arsenal well in their Cup-Winners' Cup tie against Paris St Germain on Tuesday, but only after tearing them apart for taking time off. For Arsenal supporters even the prospect of a European final must sometimes fail to compensate for the club's cold philosophy on the game. The selling of Anders Limpar, the second most innovative player to Paul Merson, reveals a lot about a manager who demands 'talent allied to work' but puts greater emphasis on the latter.

As for Liverpool, they may envy Arsenal their challenge in Paris but their own season is not turning out to be as torrid as earlier events at Anfield suggested. Yet the journey back to the top flight is not going to be finished until they achieve composure in defence and better support for the exciting Robbie Fowler.

Arsenal's changes left them short of wing power, but with Lee Dixon at first overlapping purposefully on the right side and Merson moving wide left when needed, the weakness was not damaging. Indeed, after 10 minutes Merson comfortably swept through the Liverpool defence after Ian Wright and Kevin Campbell had exchanged passes in the build-up, but Merson stepped into an offside position. Nevertheless, the incentive was created and Merson and Ray Parlour continued to run the retreating Liverpool defence into nervous uncertainty.

Once Arsenal had survived the sight of Fowler hitting a two-yard shot into Andy Linighan rather than the bigger target of the goal, their football steadied and, while never inspirational, offered Merson and Parlour good opportunities. When Liverpool lost Mark Wright after half an hour, the flow of attacks hardly ceased and Merson glowed.

Not that having control persuaded Arsenal to put heart and soul into a match that was so obviously a preamble. Wright's appetite was less than voracious, and even when Merson's long forward pass gave him an unrestricted run on goal, he allowed David James to narrow the angle successfully.

By then, though, Arsenal had taken the lead. Two minutes after half-time Ian Selley found one of the inevitable gaps in the Liverpool defence. Merson collected the pass in his stride and shot firmly inside the foot of the far post. This time the linesman surprisingly saw no offside, though Merson appeared to have made an illegal yard.

Liverpool's run of four successive away defeats began to look entirely understandable. Ian Rush had the best of what chances came their way, and the most inviting of them emerged out of Steve Bould's error rather than any of their own imagination. Bould lazily pushed the ball directly into Rush's path but David Seaman was alert to the danger, throwing himself at the ball and Rush's feet. Even so, Arsenal lived dangerously and spent virtually the last half- hour defending a lead that a Liverpool team of the past would have annulled without breaking sweat.

It was a sloppy game that Rush would once have sealed and John Barnes enjoyed enormously. That they failed to do so was an indication of their decline and at the same time was seen by George Graham as vindication for his full use of a deep and 'highly expensive' squad. He said that all of the players he omitted yesterday had been available but his attitude was that if the club paid good money to have reserve strength, on days like yesterday there was no reason not to use them.

(Photograph omitted)