Wenger rides traditional Highbury luck


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The Independent Football

Much has changed since, but it would seem the "lucky" tag Arsenal picked up over the years remains valid. They embarked on their final season at Highbury the same way as the first, with a hard-earned win. In 1913 Leicester Fosse were the opponents in a Second Division fixture; yesterday in the Premiership it was Newcastle United, who could regard themselves as most unfortunate.

Barely half an hour into the match Newcastle lost Jermaine Jenas after the midfielder was given a harsh red card by the referee Steve Bennett for a clumsy but far from vicious foul on Gilberto. Scott Parker and Jean-Alain Boumsong were booked for disputing the decision.

Newcastle, already playing defensively because of a striker shortage, battled on. With Parker making a highly impressive return to the capital, and Shay Given producing several fine saves, they held last season's top scorers at bay until the final 10 minutes. Then Bennett intervened again, awarding a penalty after Freddie Ljungberg stumbled under Charles N'Zogbia's challenge. There did appear to be some contact but it was far from clear-cut. Thierry Henry slid the ball past Given and Newcastle's sense of injustice was compounded when Robin van Persie snatched an 87th-minute second.

Graeme Souness, having been fined £45,000 in the last four seasons for remarks to and about referees, refused to comment afterwards "because I do not want another fine". His players were also banned from talking to the media. Which left Arsène Wenger to put the case for Bennett, who had himself said: "The tackle was made with excessive force that could have endangered an opponent".

Wenger said: "It looked a dangerous tackle to me. I have seen players get away with that in England, but I did not like it when his trailing leg took Gilberto's standing leg." The Arsenal manager added: "We were maybe a bit fortunate with the penalty but I feel Freddie was hit on his left foot. In fairness, in the last 20 minutes it had looked like a goal was coming."

The dismissal was given added spice by the knowledge that Jenas wants to leave Tyneside and Arsenal are interested in buying him, though not at Newcastle's £10m valuation. "The fee is still too high," Wenger said. "He is a good player, I know him well, but I have four midfielders now and I can wait another three weeks [to the end of the transfer deadline]."

Arsenal, appearing in burgundy shirts in a nod to their first season at the stadium, had taken time to settle. Prior to Jenas' dismissal their only opportunity was gifted, Dennis Bergkamp intercepting from Stephen Carr only to shoot at Given.

Newcastle might have scored when Alan Shearer slipped behind Philippe Senderos on to Jenas' pass but pulled his shot wide.

In the wake of the red card Given had to save smartly from Kolo Touré and Henry, but United reached the interval in relative comfort. The pressure increased in the second period but, with Parker bravely blocking Ljungberg's shot and Given coming smartly from his goal to deny Henry and Ljungberg, then fielding Van Persie's sharp effort, a draw loomed. A string of corners had only confirmed Arsenal's attacking weakness in the air.

Then N'Zogbia, introduced to give Newcastle's midfield fresh legs, revealed his inexperience challenging Ljungberg from behind in the box. After Henry's conversion Newcastle, forced to push forward, left gaps. Ljungberg and Lauren exploited these ruthlessly, playing a one-two on the right before Van Persie turned Ljungberg's cross inside Given's near post.

It is the fifth season in a row Arsenal have begun with a victory at Highbury - the previous four have resulted in two championships and two second places. As long as key players avoid injury they will be close again this season.

Souness, when his anger subsides, will also find reason for optimism. His team's spirited resistance, and the encouraging displays of Premiership debutants Parker and Emre, suggests that while history says he would be wise not to take the support of his board for granted, he ought not become the club's fourth August dismissal in eight seasons.

Goals: Henry pen (81) 1-0; Van Persie (87) 2-0.

Arsenal (4-4-2):Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Senderos, Cole; Ljungberg, Fabregas (Hleb, 72), Gilberto, Pires (Flamini, 83); Bergkamp (Van Persie, 72), Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Cygan.

Newcastle United (4-5-1): Given; Carr, Boumsong, Taylor, Babayaro; Dyer (N'Zogbia, 68), Jenas, Parker (Faye, 82), Emre, Bowyer; Shearer (Milner, 71). Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Elliott.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Newcastle Boumsong, Parker.

Sent off: Jenas (32).

Man of the match: Parker.

Attendance: 38,000.