Silky Silvinho stuns Sparta

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The Independent Football

A workmanlike performance, illuminated by a jewel of a goal from Silvinho, enabled Arsenal to secure apotentially decisive Champions' League Group B victory over Sparta Prague in the Czech capital last night.

A workmanlike performance, illuminated by a jewel of a goal from Silvinho, enabled Arsenal to secure apotentially decisive Champions' League Group B victory over Sparta Prague in the Czech capital last night.

Silvinho, who overcame a thigh injury to play, scored his third goal in three matches after 32 minutes after which Arsenal pulled back into defence in a manner more evocative of the George Graham era than the Arsÿne Wenger years.

Graham, it should be remembered, steered Arsenal to European success and this win will put his old club in good heart for their next tie, at home to Shaktar Donetsk a week today. The Ukrainian side last night lost at home to Lazio, who top the group.

Arsenal's first visit to the Czech Republic had found them in the homely Letna Stadium, its stands overshadowed by the ornate 17th century roofs of the adjacent housing. Heavily refurbished since Leeds United, 30 years ago, became the only previous English team to win here, it also had a notably lusher pitch than the ice rink on whichWatford were thrashed 4-013 years later.

While Silvinho played, Ray Parlour was left on the bench to nurse his cut knee, Freddie Ljungberg coming in on the right flank. His inclusion gave Arsenal a complement of 10 internationals from six countries, a kaleidoscopic contrast to Sparta's homogeneity: they fielded an all-Czech XI, eight of whom had represented the young republic.

Though few were widely known outside their own borders it soon became clear that the Czechs had the typical Slavic attributes of good technique and composure on the ball. Josef Obajdin, who had already scored six times this season, also had pace which he showed to good effect as early as the second minute, latching on to a loose pass from a rusty Patrick Vieira.

Obajdin nipped it past Martin Keown and would have been clear on goal, albeit with 50 yards to run, had the England defender not clattered into him. Keown was fortunate to avoid a booking.

More sloppy play, from Gilles Grimandi, allowed PetrPapousek to attack the Arsenal defence, but his clever angled pass to Marek Kincl was wasted as the striker spooned his shot over.

A brace of corners apart,Arsenal offered little in attack until the 16th minute when Thierry Henry, running on to Ljungberg's cross, headed just wide of the near post.

The match remained scrappy until the half-hour mark. Then Jiri Novotny, from a Papousek corner, brought a fine one-handed save from David Seaman. The goalkeeper's heroics were then surpassed by his left-back.

Kanu, who had been subjected to disgusting racist abuse, released Robert Pires into space on the left. He found Silvinho but there seemed few options before, in a display of dribbling reminiscent of Archie Gemmill's against the Netherlands at the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, he weaved his way around four challenges,always keeping the ball on his left foot, before delicatelychipping it over the goalkeeper and in off the far post.

Prague, watched by Martina Hingis who, like Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova, began her sportingcareer at Sparta's tennis section, sought to rally with Radek Mynar heading a Papousek corner just past the far post.

Papousek then found Kincl unmarked 10 yards out, but his first touch was poor and,before he could recover, Seaman had grabbed the ball and Keown bundled him over. Penalty appeals were brushed away, just as they had been when Vieira had gone down in the Czech box a few minutes earlier.

With Arsenal's passing not up to their usual standard, Sparta were able to maintain the offensive and Vieira made a valuable block when Obajdin shot for goal following a half-cleared corner. Papousek was then released by a stunning pass from Pavel Novotny, following good work by his namesake Jiri, but thudded his drive into the side netting, sparking premature celebrations within the Letna.

Arsenal might have drawn the sting from Sparta's pressure after 63 minutes, when Kanu headed a long Seaman clearance into the path of Henry, but the Frenchman misjudged the ball's flight and the chance came to naught.

Arsenal survived a late scare when Keown misjudged a long ball, allowing Obajdin to volley just over, but held on to secure a valuable three points.

Sparta Prague (1-4-3-2): Postulka; J Novotny; Mynar (Flachbart, 85), Bolf, P Novotny, Grygera; Papousek (Prohaszka, 78), Svoboda, Rosicky; Obajdin, Kincl (Siegl, 61). Substitutes not used: Blasek,Labant, Kolousek, Jun.

Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Luzhny, Silvinho; Ljungberg (Vivas, 79), Vieira, Grimandi, Pires; Kanu; Henry (Wiltord, 76). Substitutes not used: Parlour, Cole, Vernazza, Weston, Lukic.

Referee: G Veissiÿre (France).