Highbury welcomes Merson back

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The Independent Online
Arsenal 0 Milan 0 Since no one goes to Highbury with expectations of classical football, no one should have been disappointed last night as Arsenal began a very satisfactory attempt to add the European Super Cup to their bulging trophy collection.

Arsenal's strength in Europe is in not conceding goals rather than scoring them. Thus, they will feel well on course to defeat Milan; all it needs now is an away goal against the Italian and European champions in the San Siro next Wednesday.

There was even the added bonus of the long-awaited, and popularly acclaimed, return of Paul Merson. The England striker, who has not played since October while he battled with various addictions, played the last 17 minutes. "He showed a lovely touch and used the ball well," George Graham, the Arsenal manager, said.

If it was a big step for Merson it was almost as dramatic for John Hartson, Arsenal's recently signed striker from Luton. A fortnight ago he was testing himself against defenders from Grimsby and Watford; last night he was up against Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi. It was hardly surprising that he failed to maintain his goal-a-game record with Arsenal.

Their main threat was, as usual, Ian Wright. His best moment came nine minutes from the interval when, having picked the ball up deep in his own half, he ran 60 yards, bursting past a series of defenders, before shooting fiercely at Sebastiano Rossi.

Better chances were completely miskicked by Kevin Campbell and Ian Selley from close range; Selley and Steve Bould also headed wide. But that was it.

"We probably did not create many chances," Graham admitted, "but neither did they. The important thing was us gaining a bit of pride. We have been having a bad time in the League and it was important we got a good performance tonight. It was back to the Arsenal of old. We were very solid."

However, with better finishing Milan would have won. Dejan Savicevic was only fitfully interested but he still brought the best save of the night from David Seaman with a sharp volley 15 minutes from time. He also managed to shoot clear across the goal when gliding in unmarked at the far post from a 17th minute free-kick, while Marco Simone twice shot wide when well-placed.

The Milanese skill most appropriate to Highbury was, however, their offside trap. It was so smooth it made even Arsenal's look clumsy and the home forwards were trapped en masse several times. This, however, was not what a full house had come to see.

Although the Italians' control and passing was a cut above the customary fare of the Premier League, their tackling betrayed a team already replete with yellow cards. One player, Marco Simone, was booked, for encroaching a free-kick, and he will miss thesecond leg.

Merson's reappearance was greeted with a chorus of "one Paul Merson" from both ends of the ground; "WELCOME BACK PAUL" was flashed on to the video screens and his first touch was greeted by a roar.

Graham's abiding memory, though, was of the Italians' work-rate. "I admire talented people who are willing to work. It must be a dream to have a team of world-class players like that," he said.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Campbell (Merson, 73), Selley, Jensen (Hillier, 84), Schwarz; Hartson, Wright. Substitutes not used: Keown, McGoldrick, Bartram (gk).

Milan (4-4-2): Rossi; Tassotti, Costacurta, Baresi, Maldini; Savicevic (Dicanio, 88), Albertini, Desailly, Donadoni; Massaro, Simone. Substitutes not used: Ielbo (gk), Gally, Boban, Eranio.

Referee: M van der Ende (Netherlands).