No substitute for the class of Bergkamp

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The Independent Football

To some entertainers – Sir John Gielgud or Lord Olivier come to mind – a cameo role can be a director's tribute to many distinguished years in their industry. One or two footballers might take a similar view in the autumn of their careers as weariness begins to afflict them over 90 minutes. Not Dennis Bergkamp, though, that splendidly languid figure, for whom at times an economy of effort achieves the very maximum of reward.

His manager, Arsène Wenger, offered him just 21 minutes, plus added time, at Highbury on Tuesday night and he duly illuminated the finale with an 11-touch piece of ingenuity which the majority of those present will refuse to accept is not the best scene-stealing moment of the season so far. It was the classic work of an old-fashioned showman, but more importantly a move which culminated with the splendidly visionary Fredrik Ljungberg, who had instigated the whole affair, emerging to score the final goal in Arsenal's 3-1 triumph over Juventus in the Champions' League.

Later, the former Dutch international was asked what emotions went through him at that moment. His intense eyes stared out from beneath a bewildered brow. "I was thinking, 'If I was an objective person now, I can't understand why he's not playing from the start'. Why not?"

Bergkamp doesn't do substitutes. Well, to be more accurate, although he is doing so currently, there is much evidence in his support that he should not. "I can't accept it when I still think that I am not worse than what people are showing on the pitch," he adds. "No disrespect to other players, but I am still at an age, and still have the talent and desire to do better than what is shown now. I have confidence, I am in form, as I have shown from the beginning of the season, so it's frustrating."

"At the moment the players up front are getting a run of three, four games now. It would be nice if I had that as well at some stage. But it is a long season ahead, so hopefully that will still come."

There is no doubt that Bergkamp responds with a flourish to a substitute's role. Yet, it is difficult not to conclude that all the minutes he is restricted to the bench does a grave disservice to his talents. Although he doesn't name names, he alludes to Kanu, the Nigerian who exudes a highly refined technique yet rarely exhibits the prowess that he summoned from those lithe limbs when he first arrived at Highbury.

It has been rumoured that Ajax would like Bergkamp to end his playing years with them. But for the moment the 32-year-old maintains that he desires to see out his contract with Arsenal. "There's a reason why I am in form and that's because I am here, and feeling good and everything's going great around me," he insisted, slightly contrary to his earlier observations. "I have one more season of my contract after this season, and I believe you have to look at things year by year and see what your motivation is like. Right now, I feel better than last season.

"Every time in the build-up to games, you think you will be playing, then it's a blow when you find you are not. Looking at it from an outsider's perspective, you can understand how, when the team wins against Manchester United, he [Wenger] uses the same players against Ipswich. You can understand his thinking, but it's not a good thought for me."

With Wenger committing himself to Arsenal for a further four years last week, it is a timely moment for the team he has assembled to attain their optimum, as they did against Manchester United and on Tuesday, largely negating the threat of Allessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved.

Ljungberg, in particular, has emerged as Sweden's answer to Paul Scholes with his excursions from deep to supplement the Gunners' attacking options while Ray Parlour, too, has regained his forceful presence of old. The winning habit – that's four in succession since that woeful performance against Deportivo La Coruña – can do nothing but instill confidence in the frames of the impressive Matthew Upson and goalkeeper Stuart Taylor.

Yet, still the concern persists that Wenger's team will return to their fallible selves and display stage-fright once they travel again in Europe. "It's strange," said Bergkamp, whose foreign trips are admittedly curtailed by his aversion to flying. "There is such a big difference. It's got all to do with mentality, I feel. At home, we really go for it. But when we play away, we let the opponents come to us and see how the game works out. That's a big mistake. We should play like we have tonight; just go out there and have a go. We have a team to go forward and we should do that."

Another trophy is long overdue. For all the regard that exists nationally for Wenger's men, their League and FA Cup double was three seasons ago. "We all know there is great talent," said Bergkamp. "We're very fortunate that all the team have stuck together. A lot of the players are just coming to their best years and they want to win things."

However, he concluded ominously: "If it gets to four seasons [without winning a trophy], some players may start thinking about their futures. You can understand that. I feel that this is a crucial season for us." Despite having re-confirmed his faith in the Gunners, Wenger will be under no illusions of the truth of that statement.

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