Vieira the victim but the Axe man cometh unstuck

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The Independent Football

It started with a kick in the midriff and ended with a forearm smash. Neither may have been intentional but the lingering memory of Blackburn Rovers' trip to the Millennium Stadium was brutal rather than beautiful. That may be harsh, but so was their approach.

Indeed it seemed to consume them from the first moment - when Garry Flitcroft caught Dennis Bergkamp above the waist - to the last. That was when the elbow of Blackburn captain Andy Todd found its way into Robin van Persie's face, leaving him with a fat lip to rub as he celebrated the second of his two wonderful goals.

As the game re-started Todd stared contemplatively into the turf. Well he might. The television pictures appeared pretty conclusive and the Football Association will undoubtedly take a look. Intent, it seemed, was there and Todd, despite his rehabilitation this season, has depressing form for such things.

Afterwards the Arsenal players were a touch more charitable with Ashley Cole, in particular, absolving Todd. It was, he said "debatable" before adding of Blackburn's approach: "That was their tactics. Of course they are not going to come here and let us pass it around. We are not going to moan." His team-mate, Gilberto Silva, was less forgiving. "I feel very upset about Van Persie," the Brazilian said. "It is not good for football. If someone provokes you on the pitch it happens. But when they go over the top it's not nice."

Nevertheless, Gilberto, a seasoned World Cup winner, had spent much time calming his colleagues. Indeed two of Arsenal's three yellow cards (only one fewer than Blackburn's) came from persistent protesting.

It seemed to consume them as much as their opponents' desire to be physical and may have been equally as costly if Blackburn had ever shown a positive purpose. The writhing histrionics of Jens Lehmann, when challenged by Brett Emerton in the second-half, were simply embarrassing.

And to think Robbie Savage started on the bench. When the snarler did appear, just after the hour, his first act was to, yes, commit a foul. For much of the contest Patrick Vieira was the target. That he rose above it to be the most influential performer spoke volumes especially as, this season, his physical commitment has rightly been questioned. "There were some challenges but we proved how strong we are," he said. Before that it was as if Blackburn believed taking out Arsenal's most powerful player, and totemic captain, was the key.

The first-half cards issued to Flitcroft (another high foot), David Thompson (trip) and Aaron Mokoena (trailing foot) were all for challenges on Vieira. "He is a fabulous player with a great work-rate, but he is a human being and I am not scared of anybody. I'll just do my job," Mokoena said beforehand.

Given that his nickname is "The Axe", and he has nine cautions in under 30 games, then the job allotted to the South African was clear. "To survive in soccer, your opponent has to feel you are there," Mokoena said. Both Mikel Arteta and Arjen Robben will attest to that.

It was after Mokoena had crocked the former that the image of Blackburn being an over-physical team developed. That was much to the annoyance of their manager, Mark Hughes. But there was plenty of evidence yesterday. When, on the half-hour, Mokoena spun inside his own half and shot a 40-yard pass over to Morten Gamst Pedersen on the left-wing it was a shard of creative intent amid the relentless hustling.

Otherwise the converted defender, with Flitcroft close by, provided a layer of ever-decreasing defence starting on his side's half-way line. Once behind, the Axe was blunted. Further forward and Paul Dickov brought a new definition to the term lone striker. He tried to be waspish but lacked any sting. And so - despite their aggression - did his side.

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