Football: Preston fall as Overmars leads revival

Preston North End 2 Arsenal 4

ALEX FERGUSON'S assertion that Arsenal battle until they or others drop may have provoked a hostile reaction at Highbury but in the unlikely event it was meant as praise no one would contradict the Manchester United manager.

Enjoy a scrap? It is like oxygen to them. The FA Cup holders battled with the ferocity of hungry and desperate street fighters to keep their hands on their trophy at Deepdale last night, converting an undistinguished performance into a famous comeback.

Weakened by injury - at least five players were missing - and down 2- 0 to Preston, who belied their lowly status with a vigorous hounding of their supposed betters, Arsenal recovered gloriously thanks to goals from Luis Boa Morte, Emmanuel Petit (2) and Marc Overmars.

Their reward, if it can be described as such, will be another test of character against Wolves at Molineux.

It was a desperate conclusion for Preston, who for half the match appeared to be heading for a night to remember themselves. Then reality intruded with awful and destructive effect.

"They played a game of poker," Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said. "Preston gave everything in the first 20 minutes and if they had got a third they might have hung on." Instead the disappointment became the worse for having been so close.

As for Ferguson's comments at the weekend, Wenger replied: "You don't win championships or cups just by fighting. We respect every team we play and let the referees do their job on the field. We are known for our football."

Certainly Preston earned Arsenal's respect with an opening that was as compelling as anything they face in the Premiership. The Gunners' back four have a reputation of solidity that structural engineers envy but they did not look it last night.

As early as the third minute the cracks were showing as Michael Jackson rose at the near post to head Lee Cartwright's corner past Alex Manninger and only the adroit footwork of Lee Dixon on the line prevented a goal.

If that promised much even the most optimistic of Preston supporters could not have anticipated what was delivered: two goals in four minutes.

The first began with a glorious pass from David Eyres that freed Ryan Kidd on the left. He crossed to the near post where Steve Bould just about stopped Jonathan Macken but as he lay prone of the floor, he hacked the ball straight to Kurt Nogan, who converted from six yards.

Nogan, a player who had been dropped recently as his goals have run dry, did not have to wait long for his next. Manninger had looked fragile when Eyres arced a viciously dipping in-swinging corner, clumsily tipping it over, and the impression was confirmed when kick was repeated. This time the Arsenal goalkeeper came and missed and the striker headed in behind him.

Arsenal were being run ragged but the first hint that they were not impostors in the red shirts came when Ray Parlour unleashed two long-range shots that had David Lucas diving to his right to save.

The referee also turned down what appeared to be two legitimate penalty appeals when Boa Morte was brought down by Colin Murdock and Arsenal must have been despairing of getting anything from the evening when they pulled a goal back on the brink of half-time.

Mendez took a throw-in on the right and Boa Morte lost Murdock with a lovely turn. His shot, from an unpromising angle, might have taken a deflection but it certainly surprised Lucas, flying in at the far corner.

"It was the turning point," David Moyes, the Preston manager, said. "That goal gave Arsenal an opportunity. They knew they could score again in the second half."

They might have believed it but there was scant evidence to back it up in the early minutes after the interval. Manninger, who had a night he will wish to forget, made a terrible hash of a clearance and hit Nogan when it seemed he needed to aim in his direction to do so.

Fortunately for the keeper the ball, which for a moment appeared to be going into the goal, span into the side netting and he had reason to be grateful again after 56 minutes when Cartwright's cross defeated him completely. This time the bar came to the rescue.

The impression that Preston might score again proved illusory, however, because shortly afterwards Overmars made the incursion and Arsenal poured through with deadly efficiency.

The Dutch winger broke from a central position in the 58th minute and had beaten three players when he was brought down on the very edge of the area with the Preston defence in tatters. Eyres had to be sent off for the foul and the punishment had a double edge because Petit dispatched the free-kick into the net with ruthless precision.

Down to 10 men and already approaching exhaustion, Preston finally succumbed in the final 12 minutes when Petit and Overmars profited from excellent work by Boa Morte to provide a cruel finale.

"We gave them a run for their money," Moyes said. They had very nearly run the Double winners off their feet.

Preston North End (4-4-2): Lucas; Parkinson, Jackson, Murdock, Kidd; Cartwright, Gregan (Appleton, 97), Rankine, Eyres; Macken (McKenna, 64), Nogan (Harris, 87). Substitutes not used: Darby, O'Hanlon (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Bould, Vivas; Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars (Garde, 89); Boa Morte, Mendez (Caballero, 69). Substitutes not used: Upson, Grondin, Lukic (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

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