Football: Nil-nil to the Tottenham

Former Arsenal manager returns to Highbury to earn his spurs as Anelka and fellow Gunners draw blanks
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The Independent Online
Arsenal 0 Tottenham Hotspur 0

Attendance: 38,278

IN EVERY sense, George Graham has broken a few hearts in his time. Yet when, after his return to the one club that actually had the temerity to jilt him, the Tottenham manager might have crowed his pleasure at denying Arsenal two championship points, he displayed a remarkable generosity of spirit.

"Superb" and "outstanding" were among the adjectives that flowed from the Scot's lips as he preferred to credit Arsenal for their contribution to the 123rd North London derby that was typically frenetic and too frequently devoid of technique, rather than delude himself that his team's denial of the champions was actually the total consequence of his own initial intervention at White Hart Lane. Few would dispute Graham's interpretation on an afternoon when his new team's slap on the cheek of the club which once played such an important part in his affections must have really hurt, particularly with championship rivals Aston Villa and Manchester United prospering in their games.

A victory would have been all the more satisfying for Graham, of course, and the Norwegian striker Steffen Iversen nearly produced it in the final moments of the first half when he forced a superb save from the advancing David Seaman.

That would have been a thorough injustice and the Tottenham manager conceded: "I thought Arsenal were outstanding today. Their two midfielders were fantastic and they pounded us throughout. They kept us penned in and we could have cracked, but we didn't."

It was certainly not that Arsenal's big guns lacked sufficient powder. Indeed in their French midfield pairing of the majestic Patrick Vieira, whose official rating as the Premiership player with the highest rate of tackles this season comes as no great surprise, and the inventive Emmanuel Petit, they possessed a pair of most powerful cannons.

Together with Marc Overmars and the impressive Fredrik Ljungberg, who spurned Arsenal's most inviting chance in the second half, they fashioned at least half a dozen clear opportunities. However, the Highbury team's profligacy in front of goal, with Nicolas Anelka particularly culpable before the break, and the agility of goalkeeper Espen Baardsen meant the contest ended with Arsene Wenger exhorting his men for one final assault, while his conterpart stood impassively in the visitors' dug-out, merely grateful to witness survival.

Unusually, Graham had occupied that observation point from the beginning, but he refuted any suggestion that he had done so because of a desire to avoid those in the directors' box responsible for his departure after the "bung" inquiry. "I had a fair idea that we were going to come under a bit of pressure from the start, so I thought I'd go down there and give them the benefit of my advice," he remarked wryly.

It had been nearly four years since he left the Arsenal boardroom and a group of bored players - if defender Nigel Winterburn is to be believed - for the final time. Though he has been welcomed back on his return with Leeds, this was a different matter entirely.

The response of a chorus of booing, the occasional taunt of "Judas" and one unpleasant rendition of "There's only one greedy b******" from those who lauded him during eight years when he led Arsenal to two championships was predictable enough. But if there is one Premiership manager who is unmoved by such abuse it the Scot, whose footballing heart is as hard as the marble halls under which he once walked with such pride. "It's all been blown out of proportion," Graham reflected on his reception. "It's lovely - just typical banter that you expect from fans and it's part and parcel of the game."

Resting no fewer than 10 of yesterday's personnel for last Wednesday night's Worthington Cup, which resulted in the 5-0 humiliation by Chelsea proved its value, even if it did not secure the points. Arsenal appeared rejuvenated, although their cause was weakened by injury to Dennis Bergkamp, who failed to participate in, never mind pass, a pre-match fitness test. Wenger is confident that he will return against Wimbledon on Saturday, and crucially, at home to Lens the following Wednesday. What the Dutchman would have made of the invitations that came to Anelka, replaced because of a cramp 10 minutes from time, Overmars, Ljungberg, and his substitute Christopher Wreh can only be imagined. As Wenger stressed: "The spirit and quality were there and we played well. Their keeper kept them in it." He added: "Tottenham were a fighting team, defending well and working hard."

At least the North Bank were heartened by the return of Tony Adams. Last seen on a sofa reminiscing about old Highbury days with his former team-mate Ian Wright in All Wright on the Night, Adams enjoyed just as comfortable a 90 minutes yesterday. Tottenham's rearguard in which Sol Campbell, John Scales and Ramon Vega were resolute, could not claim the same. Graham knows he remains some way distant from creating the defensive comfort zone he achieved distinction for at Highbury.

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