It looks like adios Reyes as a new king steals the stage

Young Dutchman leaves out the flash as he cuts a real dash
Click to follow
The Independent Football

He arrived here 15 months ago, with the ready, handsome smile of a waiter hovering for a tip, and a penchant for goals. His first pair knocked Chelsea out of the 2004 FA Cup.

He arrived here 15 months ago, with the ready, handsome smile of a waiter hovering for a tip, and a penchant for goals. His first pair knocked Chelsea out of the 2004 FA Cup.

Despite his club's progress to the final of this year's competition, the likely departure of Jose Antonio Reyes back to his homeland this summer will be accompanied by a scowl on the features of the young Spaniard for whom the saucer has remained empty of change, his service too frequently beneath the standard expected.

As the Arsenal faithful filed out at the final whistle, already relishing the prospect of a final against Manchester United back here next month after their team had refused to capitulate to opponents who came to win ugly, and failed - losing the affection of the uncommitted in the process - there was disdain for the headline in one newspaper visible on this observer's desk: "It's time for Jose to show he can be the next Thierry".

One supporter, expressing a view which is probably not untypical, declared: "I want him aht, mate." Such a verdict was in stark contrast to the appreciation evident for Reyes' compatriot, the 17-year-old Cesc Fabregas, who imposed himself on the game in the few minutes he was permitted as substitute, and the young Dutchman, Robin van Persie. Or, as he may be known if he continues in this controlled manner, Robin Reliant.

The absence of 30-goal Henry, an injury brought on according to his manager partly by fatigue, had offered the stage to Reyes. The French forward instils fear in the opposition even when the goals are not forthcoming. The Spaniard instils confidence in them. For too long, Dominic Matteo and company were simply not sufficiently troubled by his presence. Reyes performed like a player whose feet are on English turf, but whose heart is in the Iberian peninsula.

Fabregas and Van Persie can only have enhanced their Highbury careers with these latest auditions. The latter netted twice, converting both goals with splendid poise and remarkable precision, the first by twisting past Lucas Neill and rounding Andy Todd, the second by meeting a cross by Robert Pires after being belatedly released from the bench.

His manager Arsène Wenger enthused: "He's a fantastic talent. The only question mark was whether he could lose that flashy way of playing the game - and he has." Wenger's commendation will be a melody to the ears of a player who was last observed incurring his manager's very obvious displeasure at the St Mary's Stadium, when, having already been the recipient of a caution, and been counselled at half-time to be wary of any further reckless challenges, he duly dived in, and was ordered off. Arsenal, having been 1-0 ahead and with Southampton reduced to 10 men, were eventually held to a draw. The Rotterdam-born player, who forced his way into Feyenoord's first team at 17, was also involved in a contretemps with Manchester United's Kieran Richardson in the Carling Cup tie at Old Trafford, with his role roundly condemned by Sir Alex Ferguson.

Yesterday, there could only be approval from his manager for a player who, despite those goals, remains in the category of "potential still largely unrealised". Many of us enjoyed a similar view when we first set our eyes on Reyes when he arrived as a £20m purchase from Seville. But having created a rift between himself and the Arsenal followers with his admission - albeit in a hoax Spanish radio interview - that he would appreciate a move to Real Madrid, there has been something missing from his game.

He has complained about homesickness and, perhaps more significantly, the physical treatment he receives in the Premiership. Yesterday, once more, there was evidence that he too easily permits himself to be outmuscled by some of our more uncompromising defenders. There is also increasing doubt about his goalscoring acumen. True, he managed six in the first eight games of the season; however, he has added only three in the six months since.

Though he was first on target for the Gunners, after half an hour, his drive lacked venom. Then, when he chested a high ball down in area, the hand of Todd helped him to the floor, although referee Steve Dunn was not impressed by his penalty claims. Later in that first half, Reyes was presented with the opportunity any striker craves when Dennis Bergkamp put him away, but Brad Friedel was the hero. The chance screamed out for Henry to profit from it.

The second half saw Reyes felled in a challenge with Neill that saw the Rovers' defender cautioned amid accusations that the Spaniard had dived. Taunted by Neill, he flicked out at him. That was it, until his late substitution by Jérémie Aliadière, and by then Van Persie had made Arsenal's final place secure. The quality of his goals were at odds with the quality of the play that had preceded it.

It was a grim contest that had none of the superficial vibrancy of a final; and none of the ceremony. The first half was played out in staccato manner, punctuated by niggling and occasional malevolent challenges - with a foul count which appeared be about 137 by Blackburn to two by Arsenal - offsides and injuries.

"I missed my wedding for this" was the plaintive sentiment on one banner held aloft in the crowd. Van Persie's contribution may just have made such a sacrifice worthwhile.