Magic of Kanu puts life into Arsenal

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Next month he goes off to the African Nations' Cup. Yesterday he completed his 12th match without a goal. It would not, on the face of it, appear to be a good time for Nwankwo Kanu to be negotiating his much-discussed new contract with Arsenal.

Next month he goes off to the African Nations' Cup. Yesterday he completed his 12th match without a goal. It would not, on the face of it, appear to be a good time for Nwankwo Kanu to be negotiating his much-discussed new contract with Arsenal.

However, as any forward will tell you in a barren run, there is more to playing up front than scoring goals, and Kanu demonstrated that yesterday as he created the opportunities for others to breathe the life back into the Gunners' title challenge.

After 32 minutes his shot set up Fredrik Ljungberg; after 58 minutes his pass released Thierry Henry. He also brought the best save of the match from Nigel Martyn and the accolade from David O'Leary, the Leeds manager and a man who faced a few strikers in his time, that the Nigerian was "marvellous".

Arsÿne Wenger, the Arsenal manager, concurred. "He was outstanding, not just with the goals, also for his link-up play and the way he held the ball."

Not that Kanu was alone. His was marginally the best of a number of strong Arsenal performances, with Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira dominant in midfield and Tony Adams the pick of a highly impressive re-shaped back-four. By contrast Leeds never got going. O'Leary blamed fatigue after nine matches in 28 days but Arsenal have had a similar schedule and have older legs.

However, they also have more pairs of them. That Wenger, in the absence of Dennis Bergkamp, could pair Kanu with Henry and have Davor Suker on the bench, while Leeds had to make do with the uncapped pair of Alan Smith (aged 19) and Michael Bridges (21), said a lot about these clubs' respective championship potential. So did the way each responded to the acrimony which suffused the match.

Last May, Leeds effectively finished off Arsenal's title challenge with a bitterly contested victory at Elland Road. The memory of that game lingered yesterday but, while Leeds' youngsters became sucked into the atmosphere, Arsenal generally kept their cool.

"We learned from that match and from the recent Chelsea-Leeds match," Wenger said. "If you lose your nerves, nine times out of 10 you lose the match. We have a lot of experience and were controlled - though I did think about taking off Petit at half-time."

Wenger had decided to meet youth with (relative) youth, dropping Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn to the bench, giving Martin Keown a rest, and bringing in Oleg Luzhny and Silvinho. As influential, perhaps, was the return of Vieira after his lengthy suspension.

They started the brighter, with Petit testing Martyn, following good work by Marc Overmars, and never relaxed their grip. The Dutch winger was an early menace, drifting inside to draw another save from Martyn, then creating a chance for Kanu, but good defending kept clear chances to a minimum. Arsenal maintained a barrage of long-range shots, but did not trouble Martyn.

David Seaman was even less occupied but, after 27 minutes, was brought into action in controversial circumstances. Gilles Grimandi, after an off-the ball incident with Bridges, was left on the ground as the ball was played through to the Leeds striker. His cross was met by Alan Smith and, though Seaman could only parry the ball, Silvinho cleared ahead of the incoming Lee Bowyer. A late Bridges effort apart, that was Leeds' only goal threat and their failure to take it was punished five minutes later. One of many free-kicks awarded against Smith was floated to Kanu, who turned Lucas Radebe before shooting across goal. Martyn could neither hold it nor divert it and Ljungberg followed up to score.

The temperature, already simmering, was raised further and Graham Poll compiled a list of eight bookings. Half the names were Arsenal's but they kept their focus and, after Martyn had denied Henry and Overmars, they scored again.

This time Kanu rolled a ball inside to Henry, who sidestepped Radebe before sliding in his sixth goal in eight games.

There should have been more as Arsenal outplayed the Christmas leaders to the extent that the travelling support could barely muster a reply to the chant "You're Not Very Good". Leeds have already proved that is not true, but O'Leary admitted: "We didn't play today, but we'll see them at our place in April. I know we need a bigger squad, but I'm not going to spend for the sake of it."

"We had to win," Wenger added. "If we had lost we would have been 11 points behind and that is too many."

Goals: Ljungberg (32) 1-0; Henry (58) 2-0.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Luzhny, Grimandi, Adams, Silvinho; Ljungberg, Vieira, Petit (Winterburn, 88), Overmars; Henry (Suker, 74), Kanu. Substitutes not used: Manninger (gk), Barrett, Dixon.

Leeds United (4-3-3): Martyn; Kelly, Radebe, Woodgate, Harte; Bowyer (Jones, 80), Bakke, McPhail, Kewell; Smith (Wilcox, 80), Bridges. Substitutes not used: Robinson (gk), Mills, Duberry.

Referee: G Poll (Tring).

Bookings: Arsenal: Ljungberg, Overmars, Kanu. Leeds: Smith, Kewell, Bridges, Kelly.

Man of the match: Kanu.

Attendance: 38,016.

Comments