Arsenal set to take game to new heights

Arsenal 2 Bolton Wanderers 1
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The Independent Football

Even in track and field, where the stopwatch and the tape measure are the true arbiters of greatness, and where cash bonuses are given for setting a new mark, it is a moot point as to whether holding a world record can match the glorious possession of an Olympic gold. In football there is no dispute. Records may book a footnote in posterity but achievement is weighed in silverware.

Thus, Arsenal's joy at reaching a new landmark, equalling the longest unbeaten start to a season, was tempered on Saturday by the knowledge that they were still to gain tangible reward for their efforts. "The record is not the priority but it is a good basis to win a championship," their manager, Arsène Wenger, reflected.

Indeed, Arsenal's emotion at the conclusion of the match at Highbury was relief rather than delight. Bolton Wanderers may not have threatened their unbeaten status but they did come perilously close to gaining a draw which would have offered Arsenal's pursuers an invigorating chink of light.

As the match, which began as a romp but developed into what Thierry Henry described as a "Hitchcock" ("no one knew what was going to happen next," he explained), neared its tense conclusion Wenger was not the only one whose mind went back to last season's encounter at the Reebok Satdium, the draw which sounded the death knell for Arsenal's championship ambitions. On this occasion he kept his tie on, and Arsenal held on to their lead, but as Ivan Campo's injury-time volley illustrated as it flew just over the Arsenal bar, it was a near thing.

"I thought if they came back to 2-2, it would be a mental blow before this week's Champions' League game [against Chelsea]," said Wenger, whose own disposition was revealed when he leapt to his feet, screaming for a penalty, after Freddie Ljungberg fell over the ball late on.

"I was not nervous, just tense," he said, unconvincingly. There seemed more verity in his assertion that his team's inability to close the game up owed more to Bolton's spirit, the windy conditions and, especially, an attempt to conserve energy for Chelsea, than memories of the Reebok. Having eased down a gear, Arsenal found it hard to step back up.

Nevertheless, had Bolton levelled, some introspection would have crept in, especially as Chelsea could have closed the gap to four points by the time Manchester United arrive at Highbury on Sunday.

"You have to win these games and we have," Henry said. "That's the big difference between last season and this. We're playing more as a team. It's not a case of expecting two or three players to do something, everyone is playing their part. We had Kolo [Touré] running forward and the strikers defending. Everyone knows what it takes to win."

Henry's brilliance is such that it must be tempting to rely on him: After five minutes he had rattled Bolton's crossbar from 25 yards, and he was always a threat. Yet he is just one of several match-winners as Bolton found when, suicidally, they stood off each of Edu, who flighted the pass, Dennis Bergkamp, who laid it off, and Robert Pires, who curled his shot inside the far post. Bolton were being torn apart and, after Emerson Thome nearly headed a back-pass into his own net, Bruno N'Gotty played Henry onside for Pires's pass and Bergkamp thumped in the cross.

The reckoning was on 5-0 as Arsenal expunged last season's nightmare, but they eased up and one of several Jens Lehmann errors allowed Campo to score following a corner. The goal transformed the match but Stelios Giannakopoulos headed Henrik Pedersen's cross on to the bar, then Kevin Davies missed a sitter from the Greek's cross.

"We couldn't capitalise on our chances," Jay-Jay Okocha said. "That's the difference, why they are top of the Premiership and we are down there [in 13th]. Given one or two chances they score and we don't." He added: "I'm not surprised Arsenal have gone unbeaten. They seem to deliver at the right time."

Which brings us back to those records. Should Arsenal avoid defeat at home to Manchester United on Sunday, and thus eclipse the unbeaten starts of Leeds in 1973-74, and Liverpool 14 seasons later, will that mean Arsenal are better than those sides, or that the division is weaker?

The latter view was espoused by Allan Clarke, who played for Leeds (and whose brother, Wayne, ended Liverpool's run). Since it is impossible to compare teams of different eras, the question cannot fairly be answered. The division does seem less widely competitive than in the early 1970s, but appears more so than in the late 1980s, when Liverpool were in the ascendant.

There is one record which, should Arsenal match it, would arguably make them the most dominant team, vis-à-vis the rest of their division, in the League's 116-year history. Only one team have ever gone through a top-flight campaign unbeaten. That was Preston North End in 1888-89, the inaugural season. The "Old Invincibles" also won the FA Cup.

In The Football League: The Official Illustrated History, Bryon Butler described Preston as "simply ahead of their time". This, the late, great, commentator wrote, was due to their being one of the first clubs to reward players financially, enticing many from Scotland, and the way they "turned the game itself from a vigorous exercise into something of a science".

Arsenal, with their combination of skill, movement and athleticism, can also be said to have taken the game on to a new level. For a team full of tall players the ball is rarely in the air; it does not need to be.

Preston only played 22 League games and five in the FA Cup. If they win the domestic double Arsenal will have played 44 fixtures, plus their European ones. The New Invincibles would then have a claim to be the best, bar none.

Goals: Pires (16) 1-0; Bergkamp (24) 2-0; Campo (40) 2-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann 3; Lauren 4, Touré 4, Campbell 6, Cole 4; Gilberto 4 (Ljungberg 4, 68), Vieira 7, Edu 7, Pires 7 (Cygan, 88); Bergkamp 6, Henry 7. Substitutes not used: Stack (gk), Reyes, Kanu.

Bolton Wanderers (4-1-4-1): Jaaskelainen 7; Hunt 5, Thome 4, N'Gotty 5, Charlton 5; Campo 5; Giannakopoulos 7, Nolan 4 (Frandsen, 76), Okocha 5, Pedersen 4; Davies 3. Substitutes not used: Poole (gk), Barness, Vaz Te, Pezza Rossi.

Referee: G Barber (Hertfordshire) 5.

Bookings: Arsenal: Cole. Bolton: Nolan, Pedersen.

Man of the Match: Pires.

Attendance: 38,053.