Football: Team with class, cool and Kanu

Title tightrope: Wenger's champions seem to hold most of the aces. Now they have a trump card

THERE WAS a wistful edge to Sol Campbell's voice, born of both admiration and envy, as he departed a numbed White Hart Lane, the raw nerves now all dead. But an hour earlier they had been as sensitive to the touch as Dustin Hoffman's teeth after an appointment with Olivier's Nazi dentist in the film Marathon Man.

The Tottenham captain and arguably England's most polished defender had been asked, after a north London derby which had pulsated with frenzied emotion, about the problems of containing Nicolas Anelka and Co. He gave a little sardonic laugh, before declaring almost plaintively: "You can't mark all of them, can you?" He identified the problem for anyone who searches for evidence of frailty within the Arsenal psyche.

On Tuesday night at Elland Road, David O'Leary's prodigies should be the team to expose all known deficiencies in their visitors. But with Anelka, the No 9 dog, consistently slipping the Spurs' No 23, Campbell, out of the traps, the majestic Dennis Bergkamp, a Marc Overmars whose contempt for any full-back appears to increase with his years, and those rapacious midfielders Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira, all attaining their maximum potential simultaneously, the only predictable facet of their play is sustaining another victory. If anything, they appear to acquire even more potency on their travels, when they can exploit the prairie-like open spaces behind their rivals' rearguard.

Their manager Arsene Wenger purses his lips, and expels a nasal and decidedly diplomatic "Ohhh...I think it will still be very difficult", when an attempt is made to draw him on the authenticity of their title challenge. Yet, Campbell, parrying the rapier-thrusts of the boarding party from their deadliest rivals like some latter-day Errol Flynn, knows the signs of a championship-bound team. "They can see it," he said of Arsenal's proximity to the title, "and they're in the mode now. They've just got to keep on going. They've got quality players all over the pitch and they've got options."

Options, indeed. As the defender Lee Dixon, who engaged in an often unseemly duel with David Ginola, suggested afterwards, in terms of their squad the champions are approaching that boasted by Manchester United. The quality of reserves is becoming the benchmark, so to speak, of any team and will do so increasingly. "Last season when you looked at us, there weren't really any big names on the bench. This season, there's people like Kanu, who can come on and score goals, and Kaba Diawara."

On the eve of the announcement of Ginola as Footballer of the Year, it was perhaps unfortunate that he enjoyed one of his least effective performances and that he was eclipsed in influence by last year's winner, Bergkamp. While Anelka, Bergkamp and Kanu's deft footwork could have been choreographed by Michael Flatley for Lords of the Dance, Ginola had one of those nights when, the occasional second-half scintillating burst apart, he might have been tutored by Norman Wisdom.

In fact, if there was a season which has exemplified the absurdity of awards, this is it. It is still difficult to imagine on what basis the charismatic Frenchman, for all the fact that he has splendidly embellished a season of renaissance for Tottenham, won the vote ahead of any number of Manchester United and Arsenal players. One can only assume that second and third-placed Dwight Yorke and David Beckham split the Manchester United vote. And what of Roy Keane or a player who has surely been as influential as all three of them in United's continuing European adventure, Jaap Stam? Similarly, what of this observer's choice, Petit, or Martin Keown and Tony Adams? If there is to be validity to awards, elections should not take place until the end of the season.

Bergkamp himself may have reached his crescendo too late after the effects of a World Cup campaign clearly subdued his early displays, but on Wednesday he was peerless in his vision and distribution. You could attempt to man- mark the Dutchman, but when he loiters so deep it is almost impossible to counter him. "If you give him time," Campbell reflected. "He'll hurt you." And he did, with the precision of a gnarled seamstress, threading through supremely weighted balls from inside his own half for Petit and Anelka's opening goals.

Now, Wenger has the luxury of being able to substitute, or rest, him without disquiet. Nwankwo Kanu, the former Internazionale player, has provided Wenger with tremendous tactical variation and a different dimension to Arsenal's game since he arrived for a touch over pounds 4m in January. The 6ft 6in, gangling Nigerian, who would leave footprints in the sand which would puzzle many an anthropologist, may not possess the normal statistics of a footballer, other than those of a statuesque target man.

Appearances are mightily deceptive. The languid ease with which he controls the ball serves to obscure the power in that sinewy frame. At times, he appears to possess an almost hypnotic presence which inveigles defenders into committing themselves and exemplifies the almost dispassionate, yet frighteningly effective, manner in which the Arsenal approach their attacking sorties. Radio Five Live's pundit Chris Kamara spoke of Arsenal being on another planet for much of this game and Kanu's extravagant flip over the otherwise highly competent Luke Young before placing the contest beyond Tottenham's reach with Arsenal's third in the 3-1 triumph was out of this world.

Speaking of which, Nigel Winterburn's bizarre Red Indian war dance after that goal, albeit in front of his own dug-out, will no doubt receive condemnation by the FA, although it appeared to be a private celebration, without malice intended. To my mind, the reaction of a senior steward and then of the fourth official Graham Poll, in attempting to prevent him, could have created a problem which didn't exist.

"Kanu is fantastic because he has so much quality," said Wenger of his player, who could be a model for High and Mighty. "I know how lucky I am to have two players like that [Bergkamp and Kanu]." Heart surgery in 1996 may have instilled wariness in some would-be purchasers, but the Arsenal manager maintained: "Of course, we had to take a gamble with him, but he has so hugely impressed everybody, not only with his class, but with his experience. He is a great man. I waited a year to sign him, but sometimes it takes time to realise your dreams. My target was for him to find a good level by the end of the season. He has convinced everybody that he is a talent, so he has done that."

There is a conviction within Kanu that he has helped bring his new team to the threshold for a second successive year. "Despite all the nerves, it won't get to us," he insisted. "The spirit here is so strong, different from other clubs where I have played. Everyone knows what they have to do, everybody contributes, they know what is expected of them."

Frankly, this was a night on which to trumpet the deeds of Arsenal forwards rather than question the immediate future of Tottenham who must surely reinforce in all departments in the close season if they are to emulate the recent successes of their neighbours. It will be a fascinating summer. Spurs' director of football, David Pleat, referring in his programme notes to Chelsea's reported 80 per cent wage hike, has suggested that their manager's purchasing power will be limited. "We have made it clear that although we will help George Graham's attempts to bring back former glories, we will not give monies that lead us into a suicidal financial position. We want glory, success, like every other club, but we will not be bamboozled into wild spending," he decreed.

Nevertheless, there are those, like Campbell, whose contract expires in two years, who will require reassurance from Tottenham that their ambition matches his own. "We've got a great manager, who is a winner and I've got great confidence in him," said Campbell, before adding: "But tonight showed what we've got to do. As a side, you've just got to look at us and look at them and think 'I want to be playing in those kinds of games, week in, week out'."

In this part of north London, they call it keeping up with the Arsenals. In a week's time, you suspect there might be yet another of their neighbours' acquisitions to covet.

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