Batistuta destroys Arsenal's ambitions

Wenger's men suffer more Wembley agony as hopes of reaching the last 16 are crushed by Fiorentina
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The Independent Online

Arsenal's challenge for the European Cup died on home ground last night, as it always has in the past. Three previous campaigns ended in defeats by Ajax and Benfica at Highbury, then Lens last year at the adopted home of Wembley - which has brought so much money but so little joy. A draw, which would have left all to play for in the final group matches next Wednesday, seemed the most likely result until Gabriel Batistuta screwed in a fierce shot in the 74th minute. A guaranteed place in the Uefa Cup will be no consolation.

Arsenal's challenge for the European Cup died on home ground last night, as it always has in the past. Three previous campaigns ended in defeats by Ajax and Benfica at Highbury, then Lens last year at the adopted home of Wembley - which has brought so much money but so little joy. A draw, which would have left all to play for in the final group matches next Wednesday, seemed the most likely result until Gabriel Batistuta screwed in a fierce shot in the 74th minute. A guaranteed place in the Uefa Cup will be no consolation.

For all Arsenal's late pressure - Davor Suker hitting a post just before the finish - that goal was worth a place in the second stage of the Champions' League as well as marking Arsenal's first defeat at home by an Italian side. So they were left to rue even more Nwankwo Kanu's missed penalty in the goalless draw in Florence.

The pre-match expectation was that Arsenal could only benefit from having Emmanuel Petit, now fully fit, and Patrick Vieira, free of domestic suspension, back in harness. It was only the fourth time that the French pair had started a game together this season, the first in the Champions' League, and the first at any level since 14 August, when Petit had limped off after 40 minutes at Sunderland. Significantly, Arsenal kept a clean sheet in more than half of their joint appearances last season, the defence gaining significantly from having such a strong barrier in front of them.

Barrier or not, there was no preventing Fiorentina creating the best opportunity of the first half. In the 15th minute, Angelo di Livio was allowed to cross almost from the by-line and Enrico Chiesa's header slid uncomfortably close to the far post.

That, to be fair, was a rare chance, the ball flowing the other way with some insistence for the most part. The French friends might have conjured up an opening goal between them early in the game, Petit's corner being miscued by a slackly-marked Vieira. Soon afterwards, Dennis Bergkamp was guilty of a worse miskick after a cross by Ray Parlour. When Arsÿne Wenger's two preferred strikers combined, Saturday's hero Kanu had to half-volley at a difficult angle and the ball flew too high.

The most encouraging aspect for Arsenal was to see Marc Overmars scampering away down the left flank at regular intervals. His crossing rarely matched his dribbling, however, and on the one occasion he came inside to hazard a shot, Francesco Toldo held it without any great trouble.

Fiorentina, as predicted, used only two men up rather than using their favoured 3-4-3 formation, omitting Predrag Mijatovic, the striker whose goal won the European Cup for Real Madrid two years ago, because of concerns over his fitness.

Fiorentina's veteran coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, had seen the danger on his team's right side and at half-time brought on Daniele Adani to police Overmars more closely, Di Livio moving inside but doubling up on the Dutchman when he gained possession. But Overmars still sneaked away to set up Arsenal's best chance yet in the 50th minute. He fed Kanu to lay-off to Bergkamp on the edge of the penalty area, but the striker shanked his shot.

Martin Keown did no better 10 minutes later from an even better position, giving the goalkeeper an easy catch as Vieira landed a cross on to his head. By then, Arsenal had made a double change in midfield, replacing the injured Parlour and the tiring Petit with Fredrik Ljungberg and Nelson Vivas.

Suker was then sent on for the last 25 minutes, only to find his first contribution was kicking off after a Fiorentina goal. Heinrich held off Adams to slide a pass wide for Batistuta, who shot viciously across David Seaman and high into the far corner of the net.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon (Suker, 73), Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour (Ljungberg, 56), Vieira, Petit (Vivas, 59), Overmars; Bergkamp, Kanu. Substitutes not used: Manninger (gk), Henry, Silvinho, Upson.

Fiorentina (3-5-2): Toldo; Repka, Firicano, Pierlini; Di Livio, Rossitto, Rui Costa, Cois (Adani, h-t), Heinrich; Chiesa, Batistuta. Substitutes not used: Taglialatela (gk), Amor, Mijatovic, Okon, Balbo, Bressan.

Referee: L Michel (Slovakia).

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