Bergkamp can't say goodbye to this team

Dutch master playing for extra time as stronger, classier Gunners slip into overdrive
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A year ago this week, Arsenal had just achieved an excellent result away to Chelsea and were beginning to look forward to a critical home game with Manchester United and an FA Cup semi-final within a few days of each other. What's new, in a country increasingly dominated by the same knot of teams? Quite a lot as it happens; above all, the balance between the two leading clubs.

A year ago this week, Arsenal had just achieved an excellent result away to Chelsea and were beginning to look forward to a critical home game with Manchester United and an FA Cup semi-final within a few days of each other. What's new, in a country increasingly dominated by the same knot of teams? Quite a lot as it happens; above all, the balance between the two leading clubs.

This time last year, whatever subtle forces determine these things were blowing United along and forcing Arsenal off course. Despite the 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge (in an FA Cup sixth-round replay), Arsène Wenger's team had suffered the deep disappointment of being knocked out of the Champions' League in Valencia, immediately after a damaging defeat at Blackburn, where they suddenly wore a vulnerable look.

Having briefly been eight points clear in the Premiership - which some players seemed to feel meant the job was done - they found United closing fast, then sneaking ahead after smashing in six goals in half an hour at Newcastle and cavorting away from Highbury with a 2-2 draw to stay in front. No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson danced on the pitch at the final whistle. The old campaigner knew the force was with his team. It remained there until the title was won three weeks later.

Twelve months on, there is new humility in the Arsenal squad, but a relaxed confidence too, based on absolute trust in those around them. As they filed away from Stamford Bridge this time, a draw and away goal in the locker, it was in the knowledge that destiny, and history, are in their hands this time. "United will have to come and beat us at home and play very well, because we're playing good football, our confidence is really high and we're enjoying ourselves," said Patrick Vieira. And what more reassuring sight could there be for any team-mate than to see the Arsenal captain bestriding the midfield at the peak of his powers?

Vieira behind him and Thierry Henry in front, Dennis Bergkamp liked the view from the Bridge. In the Premiership game there last month, he played two of the season's most sublime passes, one 50 yards across the pitch for Henry to volley and the other with the side of the right foot, setting up Vieira's equalising goal. "Sometimes you think a player is dead and he lives again," Wenger declared - and it wasn't Mark Lazarus he had in mind.

The manager is keeping his Dutchman in suspense over a contract for next season, but another one will surely be offered, extending Bergkamp's length of service to 10 years since the otherwise maligned Bruce Rioch signed him in June 1995. "I feel that I could do another year easily," he confirmed. "I feel fantastic physically and I'm happy. It's just a matter of taking care of yourself for many years and you'll have that extra [time] at the end of your career. That's probably why I'm benefiting at the moment. I don't feel I want to go somewhere else for maybe one or two years. It's difficult to say goodbye to something that is truly tremendous, playing in such a team."

Bergkamp has winner's medals for the Uefa Cup (with Ajax and Inter), Cup-Winners' Cup (Ajax), two Arsenal Doubles, and trophies for best goals in the Premiership (twice) and the 1998 World Cup (the wondrous strike against Argentina). What is noticeably lacking on the cv is the European Cup, something he has been desperate to win and is now closer to than ever. This year's final takes place a week after his 35th birthday, but thoughts of the best present ever have to be put aside for now in favour of two matches against United in the next seven days.

For the first, at Highbury this afternoon, Arsenal can afford to be sanguine in the light of their points advantage. Whatever the result today, it is Saturday's FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park that has the look of a banana skin, like the one Bergkamp slipped on there in 1999. Circumstances were almost identical, except that it was United going for an unprecedented Treble. They would have been denied it had his penalty in the last minute not been saved by Peter Schmeichel, allowing the shirt-whirling Ryan Giggs to become match-winner instead during extra-time. It took the sensitive Dutchman a long while to get over that.

This time he thinks that the ball is running Arsenal's way and that, crucially, they have a stronger squad available than United: "They have some key players missing through injuries and suspension, and that doesn't help. It's a different feeling to last year, when we were missing players at key moments. We're looking good squad-wise and we've got a lot of players in form."

Another of them, Robert Pires, is one of the few prepared to tempt fate by talking of the records which will be either broken or equalled if Arsenal can avoid defeat today for the 30th League game since the start of the season. To achieve that against United, he said, will be "historique", adding: "We don't want to lose the [unbeaten] record, full stop. But the key this season is to make sure we become champions. Whether we lose a game or two along the way is of no consequence whatsoever to the players. Having said that, we're obviously keen not to muck it up on Sunday."

The impression is that talk of record-breaking will be heard mainly in the stands, not the dressing room, where Bergkamp believes that this year his team-mates are on the right side of the line between confidence and complacency: "We've got a lot of talent here and if the mentality is right, we know the talent will win us games. If it's a record then it's a record. It's a difficult game to get it but that's not really in our minds. We know what we want to achieve this year and that these two games are very important for us. United are always up for it and so are we."

Light the blue touch-paper and stand well back.

Close Calls In Record Run
By Alex Hayes

16 August 2003: 2-1 defeat of Everton. A significant victory, because it came on the first day of the season, and against the team who ended their unbeaten start the previous year.

13 September: 1-1 draw with Portsmouth. Probably their toughest game. Teddy Sheringham opened the scoring and only a controversial Thierry Henry penalty, given after Robert Pires had appeared to dive in the box, saved the day.

18 October: 2-1 win over Chelsea. Claudio Ranieri's men fought hard and probably deserved a draw, but Arsenal's psychological edge secured yet another win against this season's nearest challengers.

8 November: 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur. Darren Anderton's fifth-minute goal looked to be enough until Arsenal found two goals in the last 20 minutes to secure the bragging rights over their north London rivals.

14 December: 1-0 defeat of Blackburn Rovers. Rovers had been Arsenal's bogey team in previous teams, especially at Highbury, but an 11th-minute Dennis Bergkamp goal proved that, this season, no one scares Arsène Wenger's men.



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