Football: Overmars hosts homecoming party

Arsenal 2 Overmars 60, 72 Leeds United 1 Hasselbaink 69 Attenda nce: 38,018
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The Independent Online
WITH or without Tony Adams, this was always going to be one of those awkward occasions for Arsenal: George Graham coming back to the club where, but for "the bung" allegations, he might have become as eminent, historically, as Herbert Chapman. He avoided going to the boardroom yesterday after criticising the directors on television and then suffered the indignity of seeing a sour game that Leeds could have salvaged be turned against them by two sweet goals from Marc Overmars.

Fresh hope for Arsenal had sprung out of their Coca-Cola Cup win over West Ham which contained a revived performance by Ian Wright, whose future either at Highbury or maybe with Graeme Souness at Benfica could be decided this week. But the fact that they have to appear at Port Vale on Wednesday for an FA Cup replay is testimony to having been badly out of sorts.

They urgently needed a sequence of wins against Premiership quality opponents. Yesterday's opposition was not ideal. Leeds required no reminding how much their manager wants to prove to his old employers that he can upstage Arsenal without buying up half the players in the French League.

The home side's hospitality out on the pitch appeared to be almost excessive when, after only three minutes, their defence remained invitingly static while Lee Bowyer chose a large gap into which Rod Wallace had lodged. Wallace timed his run superbly and should have done better than slam a careless shot directly at David Seaman.

Such transparent opportunities were scarce, particularly for Leeds whose quick and frequent withdrawal to a five-man defence pointed at their reliance on the counter-attack. In the meantime, those defenders lived dangerously, first allowing Dennis Bergkamp a free header, which, uncharacteristically, he turned into a tame flick off his eyebrows, then persistently giving away free-kicks within Bergkamp's range. Not only that, they were fortunate not to concede a penalty when Lucas Radebe clipped Bergkamp painfully on the ankle. None the less, Arsenal's occasional defensive lapses gave them no cause for confidence.

The Arsenal fans were incensed by what they interpreted as unsympathetic refereeing from Gerald Ashby who was surrounded by arguing and jostling players as the first half ended. Certainly he missed several offensive tackles but this was a game dangerously on the edge of becoming an unruly battle. Ashby was constantly harangued by Bergkamp whose superb skill deserves every possible protection but whose constant complaining is less easy to defend.

Irritability festered. Tackles became ever more ragged. Frustration gnawed into both teams and the outcome was an uninspiring midfield struggle. Wright rarely got possession anywhere near the Leeds goal and Bruno Ribeiro's creative talents were submerged in the turmoil.

The need to turn everyone's attention away from the destructive theme was obvious and eventually came just before the hour thanks to the first evidence of positive finishing. Emmanuel Petit slid through a fine pass which Overmars gathered before hitting a low shot inside Nigel Martyn's far post.

Leeds had to commit themselves to recovery. Arsenal at last assembled some confidence but were totally disrupted after Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was brought on to enliven their attack. When Wallace slid the ball across the mouth of the Arsenal goal, Seaman deflected out only as far as Hasselbaink who calmly turned the ball past the helpless keeper.

Suddenly, where there had been nothing but lost causes, now there was positive thought and even adventure. Overmars brought about the best of it but Wright was into everything. Rightly, in view of Arsenal's domination of forward movement, they went into the lead after 72 minutes. Bergkamp cut an angled ball into the path of Overmars whose shot beneath Martyn was the equal of his first.