Armstrong 87 Overmars pen 4, Anelka 38, 78
Kanu 45, 60, Vieira 58,
Half-time: 0-3 Attendance: 34, 630
IT WAS Bryan Robson who lifted the first trophy of Alex Ferguson's sparklingly successful career at Old Trafford. Since the marvellous captain reached the top of Wembley's 39 steps at the end of the 1990 FA Cup final replay, Manchester United have been running out of Brasso to keep their Aladdin's cave of silverware spick and span. Yesterday, though, Robson was unable to nudge a 10th major prize towards the grasp of his old boss. Instead, in falling to Arsenal's goalscoring power at the Riverside, Robson's Middlesbrough cost Ferguson's Manchester United pole position in the Premiership.
It may be only a temporary displacement, though the former leaders will need all their red devilment this morning to emerge victorious from their trip across the M62 to Elland Road.
They will still have another game in hand but defeat at Leeds would leave them with two points to make up on Arsenal, whose fiercesome fire power has suddenly brought the target of a second successive championship sharply into focus. With six goals yesterday, taking their total for the week to 11, they would have wiped out Manchester United's scoring advantage - a decisive 10 a week ago - had Alun Armstrong not risen from the substitute's bench to head what could hardly be described as a late consolation.
Leading 3-0 at the break, thanks to Marc Overmars with a penalty, Nicolas Anelka and Nwankwo Kanu, it was shooting practice for the Gunners in the second half. It was small mercy for Middlesbrough that the damage was restricted to just three more goals, plundered by Kanu, Anelka and Patrick Vieira. It was a mercy, too, for Manchester United, whose treble chance is in danger of being narrowed to a Cup double.
"We did what we had to do today," Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said. "If we had lost and Manchester United had won tomorrow it would have, basically, been all over. This keeps it interesting. We are in it but, of course, Manchester United still have it in their hands. The only thing we can do is to keep the pressure on them and keep trying to win. I only wish our next game was tomorrow."
Robson was simply relieved that it was all over. After a run of seven unbeaten matches, his Boro boys suffered the club's heaviest home defeat ever. "It was the best performance against us since I came here," the Middlesbrough manager of five years said. "This Arsenal team has got to be up there with the Liverpool of the 1970s and with the Manchester United sides of recent years."
Dennis Bergkamp's absence from the Arsenal line-up may have offered some encouragement to Middlesbrough before kick-off, but not for very long. With barely three minutes on the clock Boro were playing catch up, courtesy of Vieira's poise, Anelka's pace and Overmars' penalty taking. It was a goal fashioned with a couple of Vieira flicks, the first lifting the ball nonchalantly over Neil Maddison and the second sweeping the ball towards Anelka on the left side of the Middlesbrough box. Bergkamp's replacement was so quick, he was in possession and rounding Steve Vickers before the defender could make his challenge for the ball. The Middlesbrough player caught Anelka's legs instead and Overmars blasted the penalty past Mark Schwarzer.
Thereafter, Schwarzer's colleagues were chasing shadows as the Arsenal midfield struck the ball imperiously about the pitch. Not that the artisan hosts were summarily brushed aside. Middlesbrough, huffed, puffed and built up an attacking head of steam that had David Seaman saving impressively from Hamilton Ricard, Brian Deane (twice) and Dean Gordon. Robbie Mustoe also missed a clear chance before half-time. By then, however, Boro were buried.
First, in the 38th minute, Gordon was caught in possession in the centre circle by Vieira, who strode forward, put Anelka clear and watched his fellow Frenchman wrong foot Schwarzer as he shimmied and buried a low shot. Then, two minutes into injury time, Anelka angled a ball into the box and Kanu, after side- stepping the hapless Gordon, had time to pick the spot into which he dispatched a low shot.
After that, for the second time in five days, following their 5-1 victory against Wimbledon on Monday, a nominal contest gave way to little more than an exercise for Arsenal. Their fourth goal, in the 58th minute, was one of stunning simplicity, Vieira feeding the ball out to Anelka on the right and then ghosting into the goalmouth to finish with a tap-in after Overmars directed the return ball, first time, into his path. Two minutes later it was 5-0, Lee Dixon crossing low from the right and Kanu producing the party-piece of the game, outrageously back-heeling past Schwarzer.
It was a wonder that he was beaten only once more, by an Anelka drive from the edge of the area in the 77th minute. It was a wonder, too, that Boro had the final word, Armstrong heading past Seaman with three minutes of the non-contest remaining. "Boring, Boring, Arsenal," the travelling Gooners chorused. Boring upwards towards another title, perhaps?