Houston keeps his mind fixed on the future

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The Independent Online
As Arsenal prepared to board their flight to Genoa at Stansted Airport yesterday morning, Stewart Houston, the caretaker manager, was approached by a market researcher.

Houston, being too polite to mention that his mind was on weightier matters (such as attempting to retain his job beyond the end of the season), submitted to questioning.

He may have felt it was a light diversion from pondering tactics for tonight's European Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final tie with Sampdoria - unless he was asked: "And do you intend to continue travelling regularly to the Continent?"

"Don't know, hope so," is the only reply he can make at present. Even if Arsenal can follow a haul of eight goals and six points over the weekend by successfully negotiating tonight's tricky second-leg match, that will not change.

It would seem, from the whispers of approaches to other candidates, and from the regular surfacing of stories hinting at dressing-room bust-ups, that Houston's days at Highbury are numbered.

Yet if Arsenal can progress tonight and then defeat Chelsea or Real Zaragoza in the final, it will be hard for the Arsenal board to dispense with him. This may be George Graham's side, but Houston has made his mark upon it. Tactically, he has done well in Europe, notably away to Auxerre in the quarter-final, but tonight poses another test.

At Highbury, the Italian Cup winners played a sweeper system in losing 3-2. Tonight, a more conventional flat back-four is anticipated. The big question for Houston is whether or not to play Martin Keown as a man-marker on Roberto Mancini, the most creative player on either side.

The problem is that Arsenal may then end up playing three central defenders against one striker. Then there is the problem of marking Sinisa Mihajlovic, the Serbian midfielder who was suspended for the first leg.

Sampdoria have Pietro Vierchowod and Riccardo Ferri back after injury, but Houston still expects both sides to create chances. "If we keep a clean sheet we will go through, but I do not want to defend for 90 minutes," he said.

Neither will the defence; the back four, Ray Parlour and Stefan Schwarz are all one booking away from missing the final.

Arsenal's Premiership inconsistency is in marked contrast to their European record of 25 matches unbeaten. If they can extend that, they will walk through Stansted in the early hours of tomorrow morning with a jaunty stride. If they do not, then one man at least will take a lingering look at Norman Foster's futuristic building, and wonder if he will only be back for his holidays.

Arsenal (probable): Seaman; Dixon, Bould, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour, Keown, Schwarz, Merson; Wright, Hartson.

Sampdoria (probable): Zenga; Mannini, Ferri, Vierchowod, Mihajlovic; Evani, Jugovic, Serena; Lombardo, Mancini, Salsano.