Football: Strachan's victims of the class divide

Arsenal 2 Coventry City 0
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The Independent Online
TOLD OF Arsene Wenger's compliment - "Coventry worked extremely hard and passed well," Arsenal's manager had said - Gordon Strachan's eyes went upwards. "Not that old one about being too good to go down," he groaned.

Back in the old Pearl White routine, struggling to break free before the relegation express gets to them, Coventry can take heart from their efforts at Highbury. How, in the circumstances, do you cope when up against a team at short odds to win the Premiership and the FA Cup in successive seasons, when the difference in class is so obvious?

At first sight, Coventry's system - five midfielders strung across a back four and Darren Huckerby as the lone attacker - may have looked negative to the extreme but it was not without initiative. "They made things very difficult for us," Wenger said, "and I was impressed with their movement."

While praise is heaped upon the most successful managers in English football, men such as Strachan, Jim Smith of Derby and Joe Kinnear at Wimbledon are the real heroes, working to do the best they can with comparatively modest resources.

If Wenger saw a great deal of merit in Coventry's effort, Strachan was philosophical. "Maybe if it had been able to put our best team (Noel Whelan and George Boateng were particularly missed) we might have given Arsenal more of a problem," Strachan added, "but I have to accept that they are in a different league. Better players than we have, a sight richer. So it was about being brave, standing up to them." Even the denial of an obvious penalty in the first half when David Seaman impeded Stephen Froggatt did not anger Strachan as much as his reputation suggested. "It's happened to us so often that I no longer get worked up, but I just wish that there had been people out there as brave as my players," he said pointedly.

Because of injuries and suspensions Arsenal have seldom been able this season to put out their strongest team, so a rare sight of it was immediately encouraging for their supporters.

It did not last long. Lee Dixon was only on the field for 29 minutes and Ray Parlour's redeployment as an emergency right back had a damaging effect on Arsenal's enterprise.

Parlour's technical progress should result in selection for England against Poland next Saturday and was further evident when he put Arsenal ahead in the 16th minute with a low shot struck with the outside of his right foot. "I don't think he would have managed that a year ago," Wenger added.

Wenger added the point that Parlour had proved his versatility as Dixon's deputy but curtailment emphasised the importance of his urgent and thoughtful forays along Arsenal's right flank.

Without it Arsenal fell short of their highest standards until sharpness returned after the interval. Even then there was little to cause excitement in an audience that now conveys the impression of being spoiled by recent achievements.

The introduction of Nwankwo Kanu for Nicolas Anelka, who played as though he were still unsure that his future is in north London, lifted things. Already something of a cult figure at Highbury, the Nigerian immediately put his mark on the game with a confident dribble that made a goal for Marc Overmars in the 80th minute.

When Wenger was asked for Kanu's most impressive qualities, he said: "Class and intelligence." Kanu, we were told, is putting in a great deal of effort to improve his fitness.

For now he gives Arsenal a stronger bench. Soon he may give them a problem in selection. It is one that Strachan would be more than happy to accommodate.

Goals: Parlour (16) 1-0; Overmars (80) 2-0.

Arsenal (4-4-2); Seaman; Dixon (Ljungberg, 29), Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars (Diawara, 84); Bergkamp, Anelka (Kanu, 77). Substitutes not used: Bould, Manninger (gk).

Coventry City (4-5-1); Hedman; Nilsson (Edworthy, 69), Shaw, Konjic, Burrows; Telfer, McAllister, Quinn, Soltvedt (Gioacchini, 77), Froggatt; Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Clement, Delorge, Ogrizovic (gk).

Referee: P Alcock (Halstead). Bookings: Arsenal: Winterburn. Coventry: Konjic, Telfer.

Man of the match: Konjic.

Attendance: 38,073.