Hat-trick is the Wright response

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The Independent Online
Arsenal 4

Merson 33, Wright 47, 50, 56

Ipswich Town 1

Marshall 71

Attendance: 36,818

THE Luigi Ferraris stadium in Genoa will be transformed into the Last Chance Saloon for Arsenal when they meet Sampdoria in the second leg of the European Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final on Thursday. Superficially, this slaughter of the doomed sacrificial lambs Ipswich Town could be seen as the perfect tonic, but closer scrutiny reveals little here that will daunt the kind of Italian class that awaits the Gunners.

Even Ian Wright's 10-minute second-half hat-trick should not be taken to mean the striker has rediscovered the lethal touch so vital to Arsenal's success in recent years. The wonder is that it took so long for Arsenal to impose themselves, and punish a dejected Ipswich who had the aura of also-rans even as they came out of the Highbury tunnel.

Paul Merson and Glenn Helder peppered the visitors' goalmouth with a spate of early corners which exposed their defensive frailties, but caused no lasting damage. Ipswich survived until the 34th minute, when Merson climaxed a clever piece of approach play by taking Wright's clever back- heel in his stride to thump the first goal beyond Clive Baker from 15 yards.

So meek had been the level of Ipswich's ambition in the first half that David Seaman in the Arsenal goal must have been bored out of his skin, although his heart may have missed a beat in the 14th minute when Stuart Slater's perfect cross found Claus Thomsen unmarked 10 yards from goal, only for the Dane to miskick.

Wright had ended an otherwise fruitless first half with a talking-to from the referee, Terry Holbrook, for some petulant back-chat. But within 10 minutes of the restart, he reminded us why he is still Highbury's best hope for something worth remembering from this traumatic season.

In the 18th minute, John Hartson headed down Helder's left-wing cross for Wright to volley high into the Ipswich net. Three minutes later, Merson's corner dropped into a confused flurry of boots and bodies, and Wright turned it into a goal with a stooping header. The third, in the 59th minute, was a gift from the harassed Alex Mathie, who placed an intended back- pass straight into the striker's path as Martin Keown snapped at his heels. The Ian Wrights of the world don't miss chances like that, although he did it the hard way after Baker had parried his first shot. He recovered the ball, squeezing it home past several scrambling defenders.

Posterity should record, however, that Ian Marshall's solitary goal in the 72nd minute was Ipswich's first in 11 hours and 55 minutes. Thomsen's head met an Arsenal clearance and sent Marshall bearing down on Seaman. Despite the combined efforts of the goalkeeper, Tony Adams and Steve Bould, the striker managed to find the Arsenal net.

Delirium erupted among the 500 travelling Ipswich fans. Their gratitude for small mercies had been demonstrated minutes earlier when the visitors' first corner of the afternoon was given a standing ovation. Arsenal followers are not so easily pleased, especially in a season which has been marked by disillusionment both on and off the field.

The lack of foresight in planning a transition from the personnel that brought George Graham and the Gunners their most recent glory days becomes more painful with every game.

Only Merson seems capable of conjuring up anything more than the most basic angles and deliveries. To put Keown beside him in the midfield is not much of a solution to what has been a long-standing Arsenal problem. Helder has yet to display the abilities that will make him more than the icing on a victory cake still missing its vital ingredients.

Despite the scoreline, there was little to promise this will not be a season best forgotten. It may be that Arsenal's most enduring memory of 1994/95 might be the T-shirt on sale outside Highbury, celebrating Everton's 4-1 FA Cup semi-final win over Spurs.