Arsenal labour is so nearly in vain

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The Independent Football

ARSENAL'S PILGRIMAGE in the Champions' League proceeds to the cathedral of football in Barcelona on Wednesday. But for the moment it is blessed relief that permeates Highbury, as Arsene Wenger's men were so nearly deprived of victory by the boys from the Vicarage.

ARSENAL'S PILGRIMAGE in the Champions' League proceeds to the cathedral of football in Barcelona on Wednesday. But for the moment it is blessed relief that permeates Highbury, as Arsene Wenger's men were so nearly deprived of victory by the boys from the Vicarage.

In the end, after 23 goal attempts had been variously charged down, parried by Watford's Alec Chamblerlain - definitely no appeaser of aggr- essors - or merely launched into the cheap seats by a plethora of Arsenal personnel, it took just one moment of cunning from the outrageously gifted Kanu to turn the North Bank's frustration into a triumphant frenzy.

The only wry satisfaction that Watford manager Graham Taylor, who will probably never escape the "guru of route-one football" tag, may derive from the winner, four minutes from time, was the manner of the ball arriving at the foot of Kanu. They do not come any more direct than the long throw launched by the Ukranian defender Oleg Luzhny, who found Kanu, hovering, back to goal, a few yards out.

The gangling yet imposing Nigerian turned and for once eluded the defenders who had been surrounding him before beating the luckless Chamberlain from close range.

"When you give the ball to his feet inside the box he can always kill a team," reflected his manager, Wenger. "He's very tall, but he turns very quickly."

The fact that Manchester United were simultaneously being held at home to South-ampton increased the value of the goal. Yet how Arsenal were forced to labour for their reward, which takes them to within two points of the Premiership leaders.

Not that it was unexpected. The Arsenal programme was a homily to Watford and their manager, almost as if to decree that there would be no complacency. Tony Adams, whose England career was revitalised by Taylor after the 1992 European Championships (Taylor also wrote to him in prison) had been moved to write: "They are honest - and in my book, they reflect the manager." His own team's manager predicted: "As a promoted team, Watford will be at their strongest right now."

Arsenal's previous home rec-ord against Watford had hardly been portentous, the Gunners having won only two of those six meetings. For 86 minutes it appeared as though the visitors would succeed with the same obduracy that had undone Chelsea and Liverpool already this season.

It will be some contrast in three days' time at the Nou Camp after this confrontation with the inmates from Taylor's boot camp, in which work ethic and honest endeavour take precedence. The young Austrian goalkeeper, Alex Manninger, who had been retained in goal despite David Seaman making a satisfactory return after injury in a midweek reserve game, did not have much to do. But what he did was to prove painful, and provide Wenger with a goalkeeping quandary on Wednesday. After one of two occasions in which he reacted with alacrity to fend off the onrushing Allan Smart, Manninger required lengthy treatment on what is suspected to be a thigh injury. The manager may now have to call in a far-from-match-fit Seaman for the Barcelona game.

Dennis Bergkamp, who is due to leave for Spain by train on Monday, spent 73 minutes on the substitutes' bench before replacing Thierry Henry, who along with Kanu had transformed Wednesday's game from a dismal draw against AIK Solna into a flattering 3-1 triumph. But through a combination of ill-fortune, splendid defending and rank bad finishing, they failed to breach Watford's yellow brick wall and it was no great surprise when Davor Suker and Bergkamp were brought on the for the exhilarating but tiring Fredrik Ljungberg and the exasperating Henry.

Watford, disciplined and composed in a first half in which Arsenal co- operated by performing without conviction, restricted their opponents, for the most part, to attempts from well outside the area, with both Marc Overmars and Kanu failing to trouble Chamberlain. Henry, hero at Wembley he may have been, but here the Northern Ireland international Mark Williams tracked him diligently and he hardly had a chance.

Arsenal's faithful are not the most patient, and when, midway through the half, they began to vent their impatience, Watford's personnel must have begun to feel that the job was already half done. When their own faithful began to chant "You're even worse than Chelsea", it really rubbed it in.

Arsenal begun the second period with a ferocity unseen in the first 45 minutes, although Kanu contrived to miss the goal from three opportunities.

The first eluded him at the far post as he stretched for Ljungberg's cross, the second he whacked against a post from fully 25 yards and finally he launched a header which Chamberlain scrambled against a post to safety. But the Nigerian oozes not merely class but that other vital ingredient, perseverance, and when the goal arrived there was only going to be one scorer.

"It's disappointing to get so close, but Arsenal are a very talented squad and we have to find a bit more quality," declared a candid Taylor, who is hopeful of signing £500,000 Rangers winger Charlie Miller.

While yesterday's opponents contemplate Barca, Watford look forward to Leeds and Manchester United next. It doesn't get any easier.