Overmars overturns Leicester

Arsenal's staggering work-rate withers O'Neill's men
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The Independent Online

A match projected by their own manager as a character test for Arsenal's title ambitions instead provided Arsÿne Wenger's heavily depleted team with what became a relative stroll in Leicester's crisp morning sunshine.

A match projected by their own manager as a character test for Arsenal's title ambitions instead provided Arsÿne Wenger's heavily depleted team with what became a relative stroll in Leicester's crisp morning sunshine.

Whether, considering Leicester were well short of their best, it proves to be a source of more than momentary encouragement remains to be seen but as a statement of intent the outcome will leave Arsenal's rivals in no doubt of their determination to wrest back the Premiership prize. Certainly, their achievement should not be underestimated. Leicester, previously unbeaten at home, had won eight times in 10 starts and were poised to reach the top three had they won.

There was a declaration of commitment, too, from Wenger himself, scotching suggestions that he might be lured away from Highbury to coach the Japanese national side. "Because I have worked successfully in Japan such stories will always be written but I have a contract with Arsenal until June 2002 and I am committed to my club," he said.

Yesterday, Arsenal had no Dennis Bergkamp, no Martin Keown, no Ray Parlour and, of course, no Patrick Vieira and yet possessed energy and drive in such abundance that their absences were easily overcome. In midfield, where Neil Lennon and Muzzy Izzet have so often given Leicester an edge, Gilles Grimandi and Emmanuel Petit were clear winners. And with Marc Overmars tearing through the opposition, Leicester were reduced to chasing shadows.

So huge a threat did the Dutchman pose throughout that Martin O'Neill was forced to switch from 5-3-2 to 4-4-2 in the hope of limiting the damage. If anything, the manager's tactical change left Leicester still more exposed as Overmars, sometimes roaming from one flank to the other, tormented both makeshift full-backs in turn. O'Neill, to his credit, conceded without hesitation that his side had been outplayed.

Given that Leicester, irrespective of their fine record, are seen still as diligent journeymen among aristocrats, this might seem an unsurprising observation but, in fact, Arsenal's supremacy had more to do with work-rate than flair. They excelled where Leicester are usually unmatched, in being first into the tackle, first to the loose ball, quickest to turn defence into attack.

Arsenal led after 22 minutes, Grimandi rising in a crowded six-yard box to head home Petit's right-wing corner. The goal was Grimandi's first for 22 months but he is an exemplary squad man in Wenger's estimation and was afforded special praise afterwards. "He was outstanding, both in his defensive role and in attack," Wenger said.

Thereafter, Leicester were always chasing but never sharp enough to haul themselves back. Andrew Impey, let down by his first touch, squandered their clearest chance to equalise. Then again, Lee Dixon and Overmars had twice been closing to increasing Arsenal's advantage.

The outcome was sealed, effectively, when Dixon, making his 400th league appearance for Arsenal, bundled home their second goal eight minutes into the second period. Robbie Savage, out of his depth after O'Neill moved him from midfield to right-back, was passed with embarrassing ease by Thierry Henry by the goalline on the left and the Frenchman's low cross, stabbed at by Dixon, went in off Steve Guppy.

The effect was to force Leicester to commit more players to attack, switching again to 4-3-3 as Ian Marshall joined Emile Heskey and Tony Cottee. But this only left them more vulnerable to the pace of Arsenal's counter-attack and had Henry and Nwankwo Kanu managed to combine a little more fluently with the rampant Overmars, the scoreline could have been still more emphatic. In the event, a third goal stroked home by Overmars, set up by Stephen Hughes's pass, was enough to put matters beyond all doubt.

"This gives me big satisfaction because after two wins at home it was important that we showed we could win away," Wenger concluded. The only disappointment for the Frenchman was another addition to his injury list with the defender Matthew Upson facing at least a three-week absence with a twisted knee.

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