FOOTBALL: Overmars overturns Forest

Arsenal 2 Nottingham Forest 1: Premiership: Champions rescued by Dutchman's improvised finish as Bassett's side show surprising resilience
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The Independent Online
THE CHARACTER and quality which underpinned Arsenal's Double triumph last season was in evidence again last night, as they edged past a Nottingham Forest side which could match them for effort but not ability.

Arsenal's performance was not the stuff of champions, but the result - a win without playing particularly well - is the substance of championships. Having taken nearly an hour to break their newly promoted opposition's spirited resistance they were given a shock when Geoff Thomas cancelled out Emmanuel Petit's opener. There were only 13 minutes left at this point but Arsenal raised their game and, within three minutes, restored their lead through Marc Overmars.

They finished strongly, but the whistles of the home support betrayed their anxiety just as accurately as the many empty seats vacated by early leavers reflected the patchiness of the performance.

It had all started promisingly enough. But for Arsenal fans, the dispiriting news that Tony Adams may retire at the end of the season was dispelled by the sight of the junior Gunners parading all those trophies. There was even a tease of greater things to come when the crowd were told to get ready for something special, only for the Premiership flag to emerge rather than Patrick Kluivert. Even that was applauded, such was the party atmosphere.

Once the game began, that mood gradually dissipated as an under-strength Forest side produced sterner opposition than anticipated. With six players variously injured, estranged, exiled, sold or considering a move, the Forest was a mixture of creaking old oaks and untested saplings. While Dave Beasant, Thomas and Glyn Hodges must have thought their days at the top were behind them, the real problems appeared in attack where Jean- Claude Darcheville, only signed as attacking cover, was given the daunting task of taking on the formidable Arsenal back four alone.

He made a decent job of it, almost setting up Andy Johnson midway through the first half as Arsenal struggled to shake the lethargy from their bones.

Nicolas Anelka was the first to do so, beautifully controlling Patrick Vieira's long pass on his chest before hitting the post with a low drive. Forest were unperturbed, with Steve Stone and Darcheville going close before the break and Thomas wasting a fine chance just after.

Now Arsenal began to produce the form which earned them such glory last May, with both Anelka and Overmars going close. The pressure told on young Alan Rogers; billed as the new Stuart Pearce but as yet without his experience, he needlessly pushed Ray Parlour to give away a free-kick three minutes before the hour.

Given Arsenal's set-piece expertise it was a foolish error and he was duly punished. Dennis Bergkamp -who had an otherwise quiet game - floated the free-kick across to Adams, whose header thudded against the bar, only for Petit to head in the rebound. Two Arsenal players appeared to be offside, but the referee, Mike Riley, presumably judged them not to be interfering. Petit's last goal had been on a rather grander occasion, the World Cup final, but he seemed no less pleased by this one.

Anelka ought to have settled the match nine minutes later but Arsenal seemed unconcerned, only to be stunned when Thomas levelled. Picking up the ball 10 yards inside his own half he exchanged passes with Darcheville, glided past four defenders with barely a hint of a tackle and curled the ball round Seaman.

Arsenal responded like champions, Overmars gathering the ball on half- way, nutmegging his defender, and racing clear. Beasant did well to save his first effort, but the Dutch winger coolly hooked the rebound over his shoulder and the despairing Beasant into the net.

As Forest tired and lost their shape, Bergkamp and Petit could have doubled the score, but that would have been unfair on the visitors and flattering to Arsenal.

A relieved Arsene Wenger said: "It was a great goal to win it. Our spirit was right and our concentration was right but we had a very short preparation. We had good ball circulation but not enough penetration."

Wenger said any proposed deal for Kluivert was "not far from dead", adding that he did not now expect to make a signing by the Champions' League deadline of 20 August. Neither did he believe Adams would retire. "He will stop if his ankle becomes a big worry but not if it remains as it is. The X-rays show there is no real damage at present and he is looking good at the moment."

Dave Bassett, the Forest manager, said: "We needed a bit of luck, for the first goal to be disallowed or the rebound from Overmars' shot not to go back to him. We gave them a few anxious moments."

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Keown, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars; Bergkamp, Anelka. Substitutes not used: Bould, Hughes, Garde, Boa Morte, Manninger (gk).

Nottingham Forest (4-5-1): Beasant; Bonalair, Hjelde (Lyttle, h-t), Chettle, Rodgers; Stone, Johnson (Harewood, 83), Thomas, Armstrong, Darcheville (Freedman, 80); Hodges. Substitutes not used: Lyttle, Dawson, Crossley (gk).

Referee: M Riley (Leeds).

Results and table, page 23