WORLD CUP fever scarcely touched the improbable Premiership pacesetters, Charlton, Leicester and Wimbledon, who sent a grand total of four players across the Channel. In contrast, 12 of those actively involved at Anfield spent most of the summer "break" preparing for and performing in the finals, which may explain why this eagerly awaited battle proved to be a phoney war.
Tony Adams, who would have been the 13th member of the France 98 corps on view but for food poisoning, was not the only one with no stomach for the fray. Dennis Bergkamp looked conspicuously off colour after his exertions in orange. Even "The New Kid on the Kop", as hundreds of flags hailed Michael Owen, could almost have joined the patrons of that famous enclosure for all the impact he had.
The sight of Bergkamp meandering through a match is nothing new, yet there was no hint that the Arsenal striker might suddenly burst into brilliance as he did against Argentina in Marseilles. And while Owen cannot be expected to repeat his devastating slalom through the ranks of the South Americans at St Etienne every time Liverpool play, the spark that sets him apart was only fitfully evident.
The layman would be excused for interpreting their torpor as tiredness, which would be worrying both for their clubs and countries given that we are just nine days into a nine-month slog. But the respective managers - Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier, doing a passable Two Ronnies at the post-match press conference, and Arsene Wenger - echoed the opinion of Alex Ferguson and Gianluca Vialli that those returning from the World Cup are behind on fitness rather than burnt out.
Either way, that last season's top four have gleaned only two wins in eight attempts tends to back up the suggestion that the season started too early. Wenger, aware that the non-stop industry of Paul Ince and Patrick Vieira might be seen to undermine that argument, differentiated between forwards and the other outfield players who resumed training late after international duty.
Bergkamp was "not as sharp as he used to be", but whereas he was confident that the Footballer of the Year would soon regain his cutting edge, Wenger admitted to being concerned that Vieira and Emmanuel Petit could "run out of strength" in the autumn.
It was no coincidence that the most influential individuals, with the exception of Ince, were players who were overlooked by Glenn Hoddle and Aime Jacquet. Despite blazing the best chance into the Kop, Ray Parlour's high-octane surges and service from the right may make the case for Darren Anderton harder to argue when England's squad for Sweden is named on Thursday.
Similarly, the world champions' curious preference for Messieurs Guivarc'h and Dugarry has allowed Anelka to return in awesome condition. Wenger confirmed that Arsenal still covet an extra striker - "maybe prices will drop now Manchester United are out of the market," he sniped - but his 19-year-old compatriot's maturity makes the quest less compelling.
The other significant contributor to Arsenal's moral victory, intriguingly, was Steve Bould, called up because of Adams's indisposition. He vindicated the decision to name him as captain with a flawless exhibition of centre- back play, capped by a textbook sliding challenge to stop Owen in overdrive. Wenger could be forgiven a touch of hyperbole when he described his back four (average age 34 and a quarter) as "the best in the world".
The combination of experience, ability and hunger which they bring to the Double winners might have been patented at Anfield. This match, however, underlined how much there is for Liverpool's new joint managers still to do. Having made public their desire to sign a dominating central defender, and possibly another goalkeeper, Evans and Houllier must have been perturbed to see the disparity in power and distribution between Arsenal's midfield and their own.
Patrik Berger and Jason McAteer palpably failed to impose themselves on proceedings, and Steve Staunton's delivery lacked its usual accuracy. The requisite balance may come when Ince has an extended run in tandem with Jamie Redknapp, a late substitute on Saturday and another for whom the frustration of missing the global festival could become a blessing.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Friedel; Heggem, Carragher, Babb, Staunton; McAteer, Ince, Berger (Redknapp, 68), McManaman; Riedle, Owen. Substitutes not used: Kvarme, Harkness, Murphy, James (gk).
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Bould, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars; Bergkamp, Anelka (Vivas, 85). Substitutes not used: Grimandi, Hughes, Boa Morte, Manninger (gk).
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill).
Booked: Arsenal: Parlour, Dixon, Petit. Man of the match: Ince.
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