Wenger vindicated by wonderful Wiltord

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The Independent Online

Arsene Wenger is happy. But then yesterday marked his fourth birthday at the helm of Arsenal, and his players provided him with the ideal present. In fact, this victory over Coventry City was the perfect end to an excellent week. Not only did Arsenal win their mid-week Champions' League match at Sparta Prague, they now lie second in the table. Only Manchester United's dominance ruined the party. "I never expect presents from them," Wenger joked.

Arsene Wenger is happy. But then yesterday marked his fourth birthday at the helm of Arsenal, and his players provided him with the ideal present. In fact, this victory over Coventry City was the perfect end to an excellent week. Not only did Arsenal win their mid-week Champions' League match at Sparta Prague, they now lie second in the table. Only Manchester United's dominance ruined the party. "I never expect presents from them," Wenger joked.

Arsenal had this victory gift-wrapped long before the final whistle, and not even a masterful free-kick from Mustapha Hadji, 10 minutes from the end, could tarnish the performance. Sylvain Wiltord, in particular, was outstanding. Making his first start since his move from Bordeaux, he scored his maiden Highbury goal and showed why Wenger was willing to part with a club record £11.5m to secure his signature. It was fitting that Ian Wright, Arsenal's all-time goal scorer, should have been watching his successor's impressive debut from the stands.

Wiltord's inclusion came, surprisingly, at the expense of Arsenal's chief poacher Thierry Henry. It looked as if Wenger had caught the rotation bug, but where the Frenchman differs from Gianluca Vialli is that the Arsenal manager gets his decisions right. Wiltord was excellent and justified his inclusion in the starting line-up. From the kick-off, the France international was intent on making his mark, and it came as no surprise when he scored 20 minutes into the match.

Oleg Luzhny, deputising at right-back for the injured Lee Dixon, launched a hopeful long ball up front. Wiltord read the bounce better than Marcus Hall and, having turned the Coventry left-back with ease, set off towards goal. Shaping up as if to shoot with his right foot, he then sold the entire Coventry defence a wonderful dummy, before switching on his left and coolly slotting the ball past Magnus Hedman. "I thought it was a terrific goal," Wenger said. "Wiltord is a natural finisher and a strong character. I have no doubt he will score many goals."

The opening goal was nothing less than the home side deserved as, minutes before, both Wiltord and his international team-mate Robert Pires had had decent penalty appeals turned down by the referee. Mr Dean was probably right where the latter was concerned, but Wenger was aggrieved Marc Edworthy's tug on Wiltord went unpunished. "I'm not sure on the Pires one," the Arsenal manager said after the match, "but I thought Sylvain was definitely fouled."

After a difficult start, Pires is adapting well to the more rugged demands of the Premiership. His pace and balance will always enable him to create chances for others, but his new-found strength is also allowing him to get into good scoring positions. Yesterday, he was arguably man of the match and his performance will have gone a little further towards erasing the memory of Marc Overmars. Similarly, Paolo Vernazza helped remove the shadow of Emmanuel Petit, as the late substitute slotted comfortably alongside Fredrik Ljungberg in central midfield, and then scored Arsenal's second goal from eight yards out. "I'm delighted for Paolo," Wenger said. "It's nothing less than he deserves."

Gordon Strachan, on the other hand, will have had few kind words for his players. Coventry have started the season well but, apart from Hadji's delightful free-kick, they were poor for the majority of this match. No wonder, then, he spent almost the entire 90 minutes screaming from the touchline. "There will be a lot more talking to do on the coach on the way home," the Scot said.

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