Football: Shearer's yellow peril day

England's finest suffers against the Tone Army; Andrew Longmore sees a clash between two England totems stoke the excitement
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The Independent Online
A DOUBLE completed without their best player. Not a sign of Ian Wright either. Not even the most ardent black-and-white fan could argue with Arsenal's tactical and technical superiority at Wembley yesterday. The names of Petit and Vieira, Anelka, Adams and Keown, Arsenal's entente cordiale, can join those of George, Kelly and Kennedy in the marble halls of fame.

Arsenal had to battle the black and white of history more than Newcastle. "We thought all week how terrible it would be if we won the League and not the Cup," their manager, Arsene Wenger, said. "More than the cup today, we were playing for the double. It was important."

It was all a little predictable to generate the thrill of 1971, which is a tribute to the extraordinary achievement of Wenger. Only the scoreline was revolutionary: 2-0 to the Arsenal. And a full house of trophies to London, for the first time since Spurs added the League Cup to Arsenal's double 27 years ago.

Newcastle were never at the races, Blaydon or otherwise, once Marc Overmars had given Arsenal the lead midway through the first half. Even a belated attempt to disrupt the fluent passing rhythm of the French axis backfired. Warren Barton was lucky not to be sent off, Steve Howey too - for a blatant trip on man of the match Ray Parlour - and poor Alessandro Pistone, given the considerable duty of policing Overmars, never found the handcuffs, let alone the key.

Pre-match fears were utterly justified when Nicolas Anelka, whose pace paralysed the Newcastle defence all afternoon, put the matter beyond doubt. The thought that Newcastle, a place in the European Cup-Winners' Cup already assured, might shed their Premiership shackles and play with a semblance of freedom proved sadly unfounded. Without ever producing their best, Arsenal exposed Newcastle's mediocrity with embarrassing ease in the absence of Dennis Bergkamp.

Shearer, at the end of a torrid week, must have felt as helpless as Malcolm MacDonald did on the same stretch of turf 24 years ago. Shearer, at least, had not boasted about his prowess beforehand. Just as well, too. The contrast between the silken elegance of Anelka and the more prosaic virtues of the England centre-forward would not have played comfortably in the Hoddle household. Not that Shearer should shoulder too much of the blame. Living off scraps is the prerequisite for great strikers, but bird crumbs? We have seen pride and prejudice accompany Shearer this season; some persuasion will be needed to keep him at St James' Park beyond the autumn. "Are you looking for a centre-forward who is good in the air?" Wenger was asked. "Good question," he replied. England's No 9 would do nicely.

Shearer would be grateful to avoid another rendezvous with Tony Adams and Martin Keown. Not for the first time this season, Adams v Shearer, a certain heavyweight duel over the full 90 minutes, no half-measures, no quarter asked or given, proved a no contest. A brief handshake was the one contact between the two England captains in the preliminaries; a similar acknowledgement of Arsenal's triumph followed the final whistle.

In between, Shearer resembled the forlorn figure of the Premiership dog days, despite the energetic, if brainless, accompaniment of the balding Ketsbaia. Adams, unflappable as ever, and Shearer, with that foot-splayed farmer's gait, surprisingly awkward for such a fine athlete. Had his punishment for the Neil Lennon incident been a month in the Scrubs, Shearer could not have suffered more than he did in the sunshine of Wembley.

A first half spent in fruitless negotiation with Paul Durkin, the referee, ended with a hotly disputed claim for a penalty as Adams armed appeared mysteriously around his neck and a nasty, retaliatory, foul on the Arsenal captain which earned him a booking. Anything similar in the World Cup and Shearer will spend much of his time in France en vacance. Moments after half-time, a fleeting chance to turn and run at Adams ended in a predictable cul-de-sac. Driven wide he played in Pistone, only for the Italian to deposit a long cross into the crowd.

Even the finale reflected a wretched half-season. Within minutes, as Newcastle mustered an incoherent counter-attack or two, Shearer had driven a left-foot shot against the foot of the right-hand upright and Anelka drifting in behind the static Steve Howey had punished the miss with a sweet cross shot.

In the closing seconds, a thumping Shearer shot was blocked at close range by the towering Adams and a free-kick from 25 yards rocketed wide. "Shearer, Shearer, what's the score?" chanted the Arsenal fans. "England's number one," replied the Toon Army, faithful to the last. All England will hope they are right.

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