Weary Arsenal draw one step closer to history

Newcastle United 0 Arsenal 0
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The Independent Online

If, in the title of Alan Hudson's autobiography, football is the working man's ballet, then a game between Arsenal and Newcastle should resemble something staged by Diaghilev at the Bolshoi.

If, in the title of Alan Hudson's autobiography, football is the working man's ballet, then a game between Arsenal and Newcastle should resemble something staged by Diaghilev at the Bolshoi.

This, however, was more like the last dance of a works Christmas party, full of weary, bleary stumbles, missed cues and very few opportunities to score. Both teams would, however, be reasonably satisfied with the outcome. Arsenal are still unbeaten, seven points clear of second-placed Chelsea with half-a-dozen games remaining, only one of which is outside London. It is now a question of where they will take back the title and the most likely venue is Fratton Park.

If Arsenal were to match Preston's Invincibles of 1888-89 and go through an entire season undefeated, the two great hurdles that stand in their way were yesterday's encounter at St James' Park and the North London derby at White Hart Lane at the end of the month.

Though they did not win, only in the opening 20 minutes, when Jens Lehmann made a wonderful, full-stretch save on the line from Craig Bellamy, did Arsenal look like losing. In Sir Bobby Robson's words: "Player cancelled out player".

Arsenal have already collected as many points as they did to win the championship for the first time under Arsène Wenger in 1998, and although the Frenchman is not universally popular among his fellow managers, there is now a willingness for Arsenal to achieve their goal without suffering defeat.

Robson commented: "Now they have no other interests, they will go for history and they deserve it. In the modern game there is an awful lot asked of players and this will be wonderful and unique. It may also never happen again."

Despite their record of eight successive victories at St James' Park, Newcastle would probably have taken a point, which moves them level with Liverpool, before kick-off. The race for the final Champions' League place is a good deal more even than the one for the championship and will almost certainly be decided in the final week of the season.

"It is a massive point for us," said Jonathan Woodgate, the day's outstanding player. "We have to finish fourth in the League and if we don't it will be a massive failure for the players, fans and staff of this club." And yet, if you were to ask Alan Shearer or even Robson to choose winning the Uefa Cup or qualifying for the Champions' League, they would almost certainly select the silverware.

However, Newcastle United's chairman, Freddie Shepherd, his eyes fixed on the balance sheet, would give a very different reply and he would have been spluttering into his chardonnay had Bellamy's comments been relayed to the boardroom. "This is the worst pitch in the Premiership," the Welshman remarked after the final whistle. "And because the club won't spend money on it, it's not going to change."

Wenger thought the surface played a part in denying his team their two most obvious goalscoring opportunities when both Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord were affected by a badly bobbling ball.

The first chance came when Jermaine Jenas, under immense pressure, tried to dig out a back-pass to Shay Given. Had it found its way to Henry rather than Wiltord, Arsenal would surely have taken the lead a minute before the interval. Wiltord, however, had not begun a match since December and consequently slashed his shot a foot wide of Given's post.

In the 62nd minute the moment every manager dreads occurred, Henry was clear on goal. Despite some desperate Geordie protests, he was not offside, although Jose Antonio Reyes most certainly was. However, as he swept the ball around Given, Henry took it a touch too far and slid his shot against the outside of the right-hand post, finishing up slumped by the pitch covers on his haunches looking immensely weary.

Bluntly, Henry lacked "va-va-voom". Arsenal have placed a huge burden on his shoulders this season, but occasionally it has been like using a Ferrari to do the job of a Ford Transit.

He was also facing Woodgate, a defender playing at the very peak of his ability. At Eindhoven on Thursday night and again yesterday, Woodgate patched up every one of his colleagues' errors. With every match, the picture of him at Hull Crown Court fades and the one of him as perhaps the most naturally commanding defender in England grows.

Only once, in the 76th minute, was Woodgate drawn out of position by Henry, whose cross drifted over Andy O'Brien's head and on to Reyes's. Fortunately for Newcastle, his header struck Given on his knees.

Mentally and physically, April finds most professional footballers on their knees. Arsenal may have been battered by the last eight days, which have seen their elimination from the Champions' League and the FA Cup, but in the championship the prize they had to reclaim, they are still standing immensely tall.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given 6; Hughes 4, O'Brien 7, Woodgate 9, Bernard 6; Ambrose 3 (Bowyer, 79), Jenas 5, Speed 6, Robert 2 (Viana, 79); Bellamy 5, Shearer 6. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Bramble, Ameobi.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann 6; Lauren 5, Campbell 7, Touré 6, Cole 6 (Clichy, 90); Wiltord 4 (Pires, 79), Vieira 7, Gilberto Silva 5, Edu 5; Reyes 6 (Bergkamp, 79), Henry 7. Substitutes not used: Shaaban (gk), Keown.

Referee: P Durkin (Dorset) 8.

Booking: Arsenal: Vieira.

Man of the match: Woodgate.

Attendance: 52,141.

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