Thierry's season - but not quite his day

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The Independent Online

The "Invincibles" of Preston North End can still rest in their graves, secure in the knowledge that the record is still theirs. But it will not be long now for Arsenal, unconvincing though they were yesterday. As homecomings go, this was of the contented, full-bellied, feet up before the fireside job - the title having already been secured in rather more hostile surroundings at White Hart Lane last week - with the complicity of visitors whose ambition was limited to containment.

But the occasion was always likely to transcend what was on display, the principal aim of Arsène Wenger's men to complete the Premiership season undefeated, thus emulating a feat only achieved once before, by those Preston players back in 1888-89. After a soporific lunchtime encounter, which was nil-nil in terms of shots on target as well as result, Wenger conceded: "You could see that something had gone [after last week's celebrations] but there was still something in the team not to lose the game."

His team's secondary purpose is to finish the domestic season untroubled by injury ahead of Euro 2004, at least for those of England and France, and in the case of Martin Keown (who is rewarded with his testimonial here tomorrow fortnight) to conclude the season with 10 appearances, the minimum required to claim a championship medal.

The central defender, named as substitute, needs to perform in all of Arsenal's remaining three fixtures to accumulate the necessary games. In the second half, he jogged up and down the touchline, with the North Bank calling his name. At one stage he placed his hands around his manager's neck in a mock-throttling action. Finally, Wenger introduced him... with 10 seconds remaining. Was there still room for sentiment? Wenger was asked. "Yes, and there is room for loyalty, because he has been such a great player for the club," responded the Frenchman, who believes that "it is an artificial system" and that every player who contributes to the Premier League season should receive a medal.

As Keown prepares for the conclusion his final season, Wenger is already preparing for next. The Dutchman Robin van Persie, considered a long-term replacement for Dennis Bergkamp, has been acquired. Freddie Ljungberg, disappointing yesterday as he has been all season, could depart, together with Nwankwo Kanu and Sylvain Wiltord. There has been talk of Wenger having £15m at his disposal for other signings, which must surely include a striker.

What he couldn't afford is David Beckham. Unless Arsenal were to dip significantly into the £400m Ashburton Grove budget they would have no chance of recruiting the England captain, who appears destined to leave Real Madrid this summer. Despite Chelsea's inevitable interest, the Gunners have begun to be connected with him, too. However, Wenger countered such speculation by insisting: "I rate the player, but I'm not interested because I know I could not afford him. Real Madrid will say how much they want, and only one club will be able to pay it - Chelsea."

Even if he was available, and within Arsenal's budget, could Beckham be assimilated in the team that Wenger has created, one which flourishes by dint of their phenomenal pace on the break (Bergkamp the understandable exception), and intricate passing? One suspects that the former Manchester United man would not be the answer to all Wenger's prayers. However, it would be fascinating if such a view was proved wrong.

Here, yesterday, there were only glimpses of Arsenal at their imperious best; the occasional vignette to stir the Highbury faithful: a backheel from Gilberto Silva to Bergkamp culminated in the Dutchman dinking the ball over the bar. One audacious pass by Thierry Henry with the back of the heel was greeted by a mighty olé from the crowd. When Patrick Vieira made Robbie Savage look distinctly ordinary, it induced delight; indeed as much as a later challenge on Henry induced indignation. "You're not fit to lace his boots," the chorus rang out as the Welsh international was cautioned.

Overall it was not Henry's day, despite fashioning several openings with that perceptive vision of his. But never mind, it has been his season. And with three games remaining, it must register as an unforgettable Arsenal season.

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