Ljungberg seals Wolves fate as Arsenal appear distracted

Arsenal 2 - Wolverhampton Wanderers 0
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The Independent Football

Not for the first occasion in his life, there could be no denying the vehemence of Glenn Hoddle's faith. In this instance it was his claim that until Patrick Vieira's second-half penalty opener, his Wolves' side were "always in the game". Not for the first time, his judgement, in most objective eyes, was highly questionable.

Not for the first occasion in his life, there could be no denying the vehemence of Glenn Hoddle's faith. In this instance it was his claim that until Patrick Vieira's second-half penalty opener, his Wolves' side were "always in the game". Not for the first time, his judgement, in most objective eyes, was highly questionable.

The visitors were only in the game by virtue of having men occupying the same pitch. Other than that, Wolves capitulated rather too obligingly - a fist-clenching, venom-spitting captain Paul Ince apart - to an Arsenal who evidently had a fixture in two days' time rather more prominently on their minds.

One expected more from Hoddle's team. In the Championship they have discovered a decent vein of form of late. But even if they could bridge the great elite Premiership-Championship divide, the portents made it seem an impossible task for the former England, Tottenham and Chelsea manager. Arsène Wenger's philosophy simply does not countenance acts of giant-slaying.

During his stewardship here, he has never overseen a defeat by a lower-League side. Frankly, there was never the remotest chance that record would be lowered. So relaxed was he that the Arsenal manager not only witnessed with crystal clarity an incident normally obscured in his peripheral version - Thierry Henry's disallowed first-half goal - but also emphatically concurred with referee Mike Riley's decision. Yes, that Mike Riley: the man whose penalty decision at Old Trafford effectively brought defeat for Arsenal, and was the prelude to their relative decline since.

Yesterday, Arsenal were rewarded with the official's benevolence; first in ignoring penalty claims when Pascal Cygan appeared to cling to Joleon Lescott's shirt and haul him to the ground in first-half added-time; second in responding to the Gunners' appeals when Michael Oakes, otherwise a defiant figure in the Wolves goal, felled Henry a few minutes after the break.

"The key moment for me was when three officials don't see our lad getting his shirt pulled off," said Hoddle. He added pointedly: "He's a Premiership referee isn't he? There was a familiarity about him and the Arsenal players, without doubt."

The presence of Henry and Vieira signalled that this tie still bore considerable relevance to Arsenal's season. In the event Henry created much, including the second goal, but he has now failed to score in six consecutive games. Crisis, surely! The Arsenal manager had started with an unusual back-five collective. Kolo Touré was suspended following his elbow on Alan Shearer last Sunday and was replaced by Cygan. At full-back were Gaël Clichy and the Ivory Coast 21-year-old Emmanuel Eboue. Goalkeeper Jens Lehmann returned in place of Manuel Almunia.

Ince made his valedictory appearance here on the kind of elite territory that was once his natural terrain. Now 37, he has lost none of his antagonistic streak. It was not long before the midfielder was back reinforcing his rearguard and heading clear, while lambasting his defensive team-mates. Five minutes before the break, the self-styled "guv'nor" was cautioned for a cynical challenge on Vieira. Plus ça change.

Eboue, who clearly relishes getting forward, went down rather theatrically under the challenge of Lescott, but Riley was unmoved. There was little to enthuse the Wolves' followers in the first half and their only other opportunity in that period came from the head of Seyi George Olofinjana, but Lehmann was untroubled.

At the other end, Oakes' heroics began when he pushed a Robin van Persie effort was wide. Eboue clearly is an advocate of Ronaldo-style step-overs. Doing so, he advanced well into the Wanderers area before producing a deflected attempt that struck the bar.

Just before the interval, Oakes went to clear with Henry hovering. As he flicked the ball into the air, the Frenchman got his foot to it, and ran the ball into an empty net. Riley cancelled out the goal. "I felt it was right to disallow it," said Wenger.

Early in the second half, Oakes kept out a Vieira header at close rage. But it merely delayed the inevitable. There had already been appeals for a penalty when Joachim Bjorklund's close encounter with Jose Antonio Reyes ended with the Spaniard on the floor. Riley ignored those claims but the ball ran loose to Henry who was upended by Oakes. This time the official had no doubts, Vieira converting the spot-kick.

Fredrik Ljungberg was then thwarted by Oakes and then the goalkeeper did equally well to block a meaty volley from Van Persie. Oakes continued to dominate proceedings, saving from Henry and Ljungberg, until, eight minutes from time, the former set up the latter for the Gunners' second.

The fifth-round draw beckons tomorrow. Somehow you imagine Arsenal eyes will today be focused on a more momentous, and imminent meeting.

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