Football: Sutton breaks Wenger's spirit

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The Independent Online
Arsenal 1

Platt 18

Blackburn Rovers 1

Flitcroft 89

Attendance: 38,086

If Arsenal qualify for next season's Champions' League - an eventuality that remains very much in the balance after they dropped two points yesterday - Chris Sutton should perhaps prepare to receive a post-card from some far-flung corner of the Continent, reading something along the lines of "Up yours".

When Robbie Fowler tried to persuade the referee not to award a penalty in his favour during Liverpool's win at Arsenal last month, morality was seen still to have a place in the footballer's make-up. Here Highbury saw the other side of the coin - a player showing a clear disregard for one of the game's last remaining areas of etiquette, with the indirect result coming in the form of Blackburn's all- important injury-time equaliser.

Arsenal had been leading 1-0 for more than an hour when, almost on 90 minutes, their young midfielder Stephen Hughes went down injured and Patrick Vieira kicked the ball out so his team-mate could be treated. What follows is usually sacrosanct - the opposing team throws the ball back to the one that was originally in possession and lets them get on with it. This time the unwritten rule was broken. The throw went to Nigel Winterburn, the Arsenal left-back, who immediately found himself under pressure from Sutton. The ball went for a corner, and from it Garry Flitcroft drove in a powerful cross-shot.

The Arsenal players were furious with Sutton, and in the eight minutes of injury time that the referee somehow found reason for there were any number of unpleasant spats all over the field. Not that relations between the teams had exactly been cordial up till then, and if there had been sendings-off in addition to the nine bookings nobody could have complained.

Tony Parkes, the Blackburn caretaker manager, managed both to defend Sutton and not to defend him. "It wasn't within the spirit of the game," he said. "But he's a silly lad sometimes, and maybe he just forgot about the injury. I'm just thankful we got a point."

Arsene Wenger's attitude was more one of resignation than anger. "England was where the idea of fair-play began," the Arsenal manager said. "The rest of the world copied it. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to exist any more." Perhaps he had forgotten about Fowler.

Wenger also put the blame on his own players, for failing to mark Flitcroft properly from Kevin Gallacher's corner, "and, whatever the circumstances, we have a responsibility not to make mistakes".

Wronged though Arsenal will feel, this incident did not tell the whole story of the match. A goal up after 19 minutes, they reverted to type in the second half by getting numbers behind the ball, and a Blackburn side that had looked anonymous began to create problems. Indeed, Gallacher missed glaringly five minutes before the end when he miskicked from right in front of goal and Lee Dixon cleared up the danger.

Manchester United's win at Liverpool all but removed Arsenal's chance of winning the Premiership, but the silver lining was that it opened up a real possibility that they could get into the Champions' League through finishing in runners-up spot. Everything was going according to plan when David Platt swept the ball home after Martin Keown had headed against a post, and both Winterburn and Ian Wright missed chances to put the game beyond Blackburn's reach. Now Arsenal are in a head-to-head with Liverpool - and aware, surely, that it is always a mistake to try to sit on a lead.