Arsenal feel full force of Fowler

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AMID THE well-merited congratulations for Liverpool and Arsene Wenger's dismay that his team had been forced to play three games in seven days, the Arsenal manager let slip a half-truth. "We have other worries than the title," he said.

AMID THE well-merited congratulations for Liverpool and Arsene Wenger's dismay that his team had been forced to play three games in seven days, the Arsenal manager let slip a half-truth. "We have other worries than the title," he said.

It was a response to a question wondering whether Arsenal were surrendering too much ground in the championship with two defeats already - a legitimate one when five is the most you can normally endure - but it cut through the smokescreen he was creating about the fixture list.

Arsenal may have more problems than a team in their position should. The age of the back four is so well chronicled it has become boring but it does not mean that one day the Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn axis will not be able to creak into action any more and Saturday suggested that day is closer than most imagine.

But more worrying was a lack of collective will that has been as much a part of Wenger's Arsenal as the cannon on their badge. The drawn out and bitter transfer of Nicolas Anelka may have inflicted more damage at Highbury than his reputation because Arsenal seemed bereft of spirit.

Their midfield was over-run and normally they fight like cats to restore that supremacy; this time they were almost supine in their acceptance. Emmanuel Petit was injured but, as Wenger pointed out, he missed 11 matches last season and Arsenal usually prevailed.

Patrick Vieira, the most compelling force in the Premiership, looked in need of new batteries, Fredrik Ljungberg was lightweight and Thierry Henry was ineffective in the three positions he was tried. That left only Dennis Bergkamp and he increasingly assumed the mantle of the failing magician looking for a trick to work. Yes, they have worries and Wenger used the old managerial sleight of hand of creating a diversion to divert attention. "The fixtures are an absolute joke," he said. "You want the same chance for everybody but this week I don't think that was the case for Manchester United and Arsenal. We've played Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday, three games in seven days. I don't know the guy who does the fixtures but I wish one day he runs a football club.

"After 10 minutes I could see we hadn't recovered from the week and we lacked sharpness. I've been on the bench long enough to see that." He has also been in the country long enough to know this is the Premiership way.

Champions overcome disadvantages as Arsenal did splendidly two seasons ago. It has been their trademark that they beat their principal rivals yet this season they have already lost to Manchester United and Liverpool. The congestion is nothing to do with the fixture supremo but with Sky, which is allowed to move matches at its convenience. Clubs could do something but are too busy trying to spend Rupert Murdoch's money to make a determined stand against the paymaster, so Manchester United, for example, have yet to kick off at 3pm on a Saturday this season.

Liverpool, it should also be pointed out, may have had more time to prepare for Saturday yet they, too, had played three games in eight days. Hard work suits them because this was arguably their best performance since Gerard Houllier arrived at the club. He won the tactical battle, packing midfield and playing like an away team, on the rebound. Successfully, because Liverpool would not have been flattered by doubling their score.

Leeds and Arsenal have been beaten in a week which contrasts with last season, when they did not defeat a top four club. "It's a sign of improvement, not achievement, just improvement," Houllier said. "After the Middlesbrough game last Saturday I was a villain, but I wasn't a zero then and I'm not a hero now, we're just working hard."

Saturday's focal point was Robbie Fowler, who became a father in midweek and had a supreme game, bewildering Adams and Keown with his speed of thought and limb. He got his 149th goal in 256 matches, crashing a shot in off the bar from 30 yards, struck a post and laboured hard in harrying the opposition back four. Happily it was witnessed by the England coach, Kevin Keegan.

Houllier declined to promote him for England - "I have enough problems picking my own team" - but he left little doubt he would pick him for the Euro 2000 qualifiers against Luxembourg and Poland. "His game is getting richer, more comprehensive and one day I think he will be able to do for us what Dennis Bergkamp does for Arsenal."

Wenger, who tried to buy Fowler last season, was also effusive. "He was very sharp today, always dangerous and showed he's a great player. He understands the game, has great technique, and has the nose to be where he wants to be in the penalty area. He has many qualities."

Wenger could only admire and wish he had prised Fowler from Anfield, because his side did not make a chance until they were awarded a penalty when the referee erroneously ruled that Rigobert Song had tripped Ljungberg in injury time. A goal would have been unjust and Davor Suker put matters right with a limp kick that trickled into Sander Westerveld's arms. It summed up Arsenal's afternoon.

Goals: Fowler (8) 1-0; Berger (75) 2-0.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld; Song, Carragher, Hyypia, Matteo; Thompson (Heggem, 70), Gerrard, Redknapp, Berger; Fowler, Camara (Owen, 87). Substitutes not used: Staunton, Meijer, Friedel (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour (Silvinho, 75), Vieira, Ljungberg, Overmars (Suker, 65); Bergkamp, Henry. Substitutes not used: Vivas, Upson, Lukic (gk).

Bookings: Liverpool: Berger; Arsenal: Vieira, Keown, Ljunberg, Henry.

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Man of the match: Fowler.

Attendance: 44,886.

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