Hughes exposes Arsenal's limitations

Chelsea 1 Hughes 52 Arsenal 0 Attendance: 31,048
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The Independent Online
BRUCE RIOCH candidly admitted a few weeks ago that his team needed more quality, mostly in their passing. He is not the first Arsenal watcher to notice as much. He is, however, the first Arsenal manager for some time to notice as much.

Yesterday in a characteristically attritional London derby at Stamford Bridge, its spitefulness allowed to simmer by a lenient referee in Martin Bodenham, he tinkered with tactics, playing three centre-backs, and Dennis Bergkamp behind two strikers, but it could not mask Arsenal's deficiencies and a goal by Mark Hughes was enough to end their flattering unbeaten start to the season at seven games.

Thus did a more dogged Chelsea extend their unbeaten home record, to which they clung after having Nigel Spackman sent off with three minutes left for punching Martin Keown as retaliation for his shirt being pulled. He will be punished ''severely'' according to the Chelsea manager, Glenn Hoddle.

Rioch, five of whose players were booked to Chelsea's one, was left to bemoan the performance of Mr Bodenham, feeling his side should have had two penalties with Steve Bould being impeded at corners. "This is the first time you have heard me criticise a referee," he said. "Sometimes you go past your sell-by date and you should call it a day."

London football often regards itself as the mother ship of planet Premiership, such is the hype surrounding it and its miscreant players, the more so this season with Ruud Gullit arriving at Chelsea and Bergkamp at Arsenal - even if they are rather more wholesome than much of the native talent. In truth the capital is more of a satellite these days with the North the real stronghold of the game.

This game offered more evidence why. The resilience of Arsenal, London's only champions of the past 35 years, again makes them the most credible challengers; Chelsea remain patchy despite the addition of the embers of Ruud Gullit and Hughes's talents.

Rioch's formation saw Keown easing in alongside Tony Adams and Steve Bould and Bergkamp behind Ian Wright and Paul Merson, playing in his preferred central striking position. "We felt it would give us some solidity at the back and at the same time the opportunity to put attacking players in attacking positions," said the manager. Will he persist with it? "It depends who I buy."

Chelsea's system devised by Hoddle was similar, though with Gullit's tactical acumen offering more possibilities as a sweeper than any of the Arsenal centre-backs. The home side were hardly disturbed by the loss of Steve Clarke with a calf strain in the warm-up, Craig Burley replacing him wide on the right. "We are getting closer to what I want," Hoddle said. "We have gone from excellent to poor this season but today we stayed right in the fire for 90 minutes."

More thoughtful tactical plans are one thing, implementing them successfully another. The evidence offered by both sides was that they do not have the vision of their managers. Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn were expected to act as wing-backs for Arsenal but do not these days have the same rampaging qualities.

Chelsea looked capable of sustaining passing movements only when Gullit stepped forward, mostly in the second half - he was conserving his energy, he said afterwards, not having trained for a week due to flu - and it was then they took over.

The first half saw the likelihood of a goal only when Wright buzzed near the Chelsea goal, Frank Sinclair intercepting one shot and Dmitri Kharin diving to save another. Chelsea came to life near goal only just before the break, Paul Furlong seeing a volley deflected just wide and Gavin Peacock also going close.

It clearly inspired them for the start of the second half. First Gullit hit the post with a header from Dennis Wise's free-kick. Then came the goal from a corner. Wise floated it in, Furlong's blocked shot fell to Hughes and his drive from 15 yards flew through the crowded goalmouth.

Bergkamp sought to rally Arsenal, forcing Kharin into one scrambling save with a dipping drive. The game's third Dutchman, Glenn Helder, also offered them some hope, though should have done better than shoot wide with only the keeper to beat. It was typical. Hope, rather than any real expectation is Arsenal's lot currently.