Football: Vieira's strike provides express relief

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The Independent Online
Arsenal 2

Adams 45, Vieira 90

Derby County 2

Sturridge 62, Powell 71

Attendance: 38,018

For Derby it was French with tears. A rousing goal by Patrick Vieira, his first for Arsenal, with just 10 seconds of normal time remaining, rescued a point for the Premiership leaders after the capital's aristocrats had looked certain to fall to the impressive County set.

Derby had fought back from a goal by Tony Adams against the run of play just before half-time to take a deserved lead through Dean Sturridge, with a magnificent equaliser, and Darryl Powell before that coup de grace by Arsenal's pounds 3.5m signing from Milan. On paper it will appear two points dropped for an out-of-sorts Arsenal; in practice it was one gained and one that stretched their lead to four points, coinciding fortuitously with a defeat for Liverpool.

This Premiership is supposed to be all about power and resources, isn't it? Tell it not to Wimbledon, who have joined Liverpool in second place, or the three promoted clubs who have so far acquitted themselves admirably, chief among them a neat, skilful and industrious Derby. Size may yet matter but in the meantime their passing and movement is to be enjoyed.

Superbly marshalled by Paul McGrath, 37 last Wednesday, Derby were defensively well organised, while Aljosa Asanovic's left foot gave them quality in midfield. Up front, the livewire Dean Sturridge upstaged the man he admires on the other side, Ian Wright, who was denied a chance until the dying seconds of added time when, had Russell Hoult not saved from close range, injustice would have been done.

It was all a tribute to the wily old Jim Smith, named manager of the month for November yesterday. "We handled it very well," he said afterwards. "The biggest thing that pleases me is the character of the side. I felt we could have passed it better in midfield but the way we worked was pleasing."

Indeed, thanks to the big-game temperament of McGrath, Asanovic and Igor Stimac, Derby's young players were nursed through any awe they may have felt at Highbury ("the home of football", a sign outside insists) and carried the game to Arsenal, "heavy legged" after five games in 13 days, according to their coach, Arsene Wenger.

Derby might have had the lead after 29 minutes when Ashley Ward crashed in a shot from 25 yards that bounced down from Lukic's crossbar. It seemed Darryl Powell would arrive in time to turn home the rebound but for the intervention of Sturridge, eager to a fault this time, and the pair clashed heads as the chance disappeared.

It was hard at this point to reconcile Arsenal's performance with the one at Newcastle a week earlier, the only impressive performer being Vieira, in an elegant confrontation with Asanovic, though the 20-year-old was later to stain his game with a yellow card for a foul on the Croat, six previously having brought him an impending two-match ban. "He is a fair player but he has a lack of experience. When he makes a foul it is always spectacular," Wenger said. "Maybe it is my fault because I ask him to be aggressive."

Arsenal had barely been an attacking force until Nigel Winterburn sent in a swerving shot that Hoult tipped over just before half-time. Following the corner, Paul Merson sent in a cross from the left which found Tony Adams arriving at the far post for a diving header across Hoult and into his far corner.

Derby did not dwell on the setback after the break and responded with great pluck against a now heartened Arsenal. The breathtaking equaliser was fully merited.

There seemed little danger to the home side's goal when Sturridge received the ball wide on the left from Sean Flynn's crossfield pass. Instantly he took the ball on his chest past Adams, however, then with his quick feet cut inside past Andy Linighan before driving a fierce shot from the edge of the penalty area that flew past Lukic, bounced down off the underside of the bar and up into the roof of the net.

Soon they were ahead. Chris Powell went past a static Linighan on the left and Sturridge met his cross with a diving header that Lukic did well to save one-handed, only for Darryl Powell to hook home the rebound on the volley. Highbury fell silent.

Arsenal began to pour forward and were fortunate to escape more punishment as Derby broke out. Finally Adams, persistence personified, chased a ball to the left byline and cut it back to the edge of the penalty area where Vieira arrived to drill a fierce shot past Hoult, the net fit to burst as did with relief the home support.

Cometh l'heure, cometh l'homme.