Dixon draws strength from the United parallel

Alex Hayes finds the Arsenal veteran believes history is repeating
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The Independent Online

The performance had everything: Lay-offs, one-twos, step-overs, gallops forward, hard tackles, shots on target, a goal, two goal-line clearances, lots of smiles and the usual 100 per cent effort. But enough about Lee Dixon.

The performance had everything: Lay-offs, one-twos, step-overs, gallops forward, hard tackles, shots on target, a goal, two goal-line clearances, lots of smiles and the usual 100 per cent effort. But enough about Lee Dixon.

On Wednesday, against Sparta Prague, the Arsenal captain (in the continued absence of Tony Adams) simply symbolised all that is good about Arsÿne Wenger's team at the moment. Strong, determined and confident - the Gunners are, in the image of the 36-year-old defender, getting better with age.

Following a number of abortive attempts, Arsenal finally seem to have the measure of Europe. Moving back from Wembley to Highbury has helped, but that alone does not explain their new-found maturity. Like Manchester United before them, it has taken the London club time to adjust to the parallel lives of the Champions' League and the Premiership. Like Manchester United, they have eventually found their feet.

In fact, in this campaign they are showing the better adaptability. Their group was arguably tougher than Manchester United's, yet they have qualified top, ahead of Lazio, and will be seeded for the next phase. Their odds remain generous, but there is a sense among the players that this could, at last, be their year. "It would be nice to think we have a realistic chance," Dixon said after Wednesday's game. "It took a while, but we know what's required these days."

In the same way as his team have learned, so Dixon has proved that he is more than capable of adjusting to the ever-more rigorous demands of the modern game. A venerable member of the old guard, Dixon is performing as if he was a regular in the youth team. "Make no mistake about it," he said. "I may look all right, but it's really tough keeping up. You can never let up, but it's been worth it. I guess I've been here so long that I just don't think about it any more, but I realise there will come a time when I'll have to stop."

Dixon added: "The game has undoubtedly got faster. It has been very noticeable over the last three or four years. The turning point was when Fifa brought the back-pass rule in. Before, the back four used to get a little breather when the ball was knocked back to the keeper. Now, though, the game is on the boil for the full 90 minutes, so there is no time to rest. If you're not up to the job, you'll soon be found out."

Part of the reason for Dixon's freshness can be linked to his manager's rotation policy. Dixon was left out of the 2-1 defeat of West Ham nine days ago, but played in the last two European ties, against Lazio and Sparta Prague. On each occasion he was outstanding.

"At first you wonder whether you can handle being on the bench, or even left out of the match-day group," he said. "But you soon realise it's for your benefit. I still get frustrated when I don't play, but I understand Arsÿne's thinking. He doesn't make many mistakes."

Arsenal now find themselves in the enviable position of having qualified for the next stage of the Champions' League before the final group match against Shakhtar Donetsk in 10 days, leaving themselves plenty of time to concentrate on domestic issues.

"We're doing well on all fronts because we finally have a big squad," Dixon said. "The guys who joined a couple of years ago have settled and are getting a chance now, while the manager has also bought other good players. You get the feeling we're as strong as any top club in Europe." The bench against Prague, which included Fredrik Ljungberg, Dennis Bergkamp and Sylvain Wiltord, bears testament to that.

Armed with the all-important individual talents as well as the necessary strength in depth, Arsenal hope they may be on the verge of a long period of domination, akin to one based slightly further north. "Manchester United were the ones who set the standards," Dixon said. "They were well ahead of the other English teams, in terms of personnel and experience."

The balance, though, could now be tilting. "Arsenal are a bit like Man U were a couple of years ago," he said. "We can put out what, on paper, might not look like our best team and still win. That's encouraging for us." For others, it should be a warning sign.

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