Football: Wenger's grafters make their point

Derby County 0 Arsenal 0 Attendance:29,018

LIKE AN avuncular professor denied the pleasure of working with his brightest students, the Premiership's most cerebral manager was reduced yesterday to chivvying his less gifted grafters through a best-we-could- hope-for class.

Six of Arsene Wenger's cleverest kids had produced valid sick notes. Without them, six matches have now been and gone since Arsenal last won. But the avoidance of defeat, in the face of feisty opposition, at least denies Wenger's all-too-hasty critics the chance to build pressure.

In the long and varied history of football followers' notoriously short memories, none can have suffered such an acute dose of selective amnesia as the Arsenal few who, barely six months since the completion of the double, have begun booing at this awkward autumn.

Regardless of them - and for the record, Arsenal support yesterday was indeed only supportive - Wenger confirmed afterwards that he will sign a proper Highbury contract this week. Tomorrow, perhaps? "But the office is closed tomorrow." His reluctance to complete the paperwork hitherto had been because "I don't see any difference between my word and my signature". Real Madrid, it seems, can forget him. Guus Hiddink can sleep more soundly.

Wenger was glad of his team's mental strength, spoke of it having been "important not to lose" and only bemoaned Arsenal's failure to kill the game off in the final quarter. "Parlour and Overmars can score," he said, "but they aren't scoring at the moment."

The truth is that Adams, Bergkamp, Vieira and Petit can play but they aren't playing at the moment. Arsenal cannot be the same without them.

The absence of the French pair in midfield left acreage out of which, in the early stages, Lars Bohinen and Stefano Eranio threatened to make much capital. The Norwegian, leaping on an imprecise pass from Parlour, ran from box to box before driving wide; the Italian was pivotal in the move preceding Paulo Wanchope's drive which had David Seaman plunging to his left.

Not that Arsenal, despite their injury problems and their lengthening winless run, were without some coherent contributions going forward. Parlour, the recipient of a sublimely timed and weighted pass from Wreh, scuttled unfettered into the area before meeting goalkeeper Mark Poom's boldly spread frame.

A patternless second half grew increasingly tetchy and the referee Mike Reed, hardly one of the Premiership's reticent brandishers of the card, proved himself surprisingly temperate.

Arsenal threw on Fredrik Ljungberg and Luis Boa Morte in search of fresh width and thrust which, to an extent, they found - without reward.

Wednesday's trip to Greece, which might have been an exercise in dream fulfilment, turns out only to be about fixture fulfilment. None of yesterday's absentees will play in that game. But given Arsenal's problems with injury and fatigue, perhaps some should make the trip. A mini-break in Athens? Just the trick.

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