Jones cuts Arsenal adrift

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Arsenal 0 Wimbledon 1

The Highbury public address was broadcasting a record within 10 seconds of the final whistle yesterday afternoon, but it still was not quick enough to drown out the sound of booing.

February has been unkind to Arsenal, souring their autumn promise and frustrating both supporters and players. Defeat in all three home matches has seen them eliminated from the FA Cup and marginalised in the Premiership.

Wimbledon remain contenders in both competitions and the Coca-Cola Cup to boot. Yesterday's three points, garnered with a well-taken 22nd-minute goal from Vinnie Jones, lifts them to sixth, 12 points behind the leaders Manchester United with three games in hand.

More pertinently, they are six points behind Arsenal with three games in hand. The title still seems distant but a passage to Europe should be achieved one way or the other.

This win was hard-earned but ultimately deserved. Arsenal had the bulk of possession but Wimbledon tend to allow that. Arsenal also had some good chances but, apart from Ian Wright striking the post at 0-0, rarely looked like taking them.

Wright, who later missed a fine chance, has now gone five matches without a goal. On this form, and with suspension looming, Cliff Bastin's record (Wright is 11 goals behind) may survive until next season.

Arsene Wenger said afterwards his player search is now being conducted with next season in mind. However, the short-term signing of a defender may be in order.

Under George Graham, Arsenal would never have found themselves short of a centre-half but that was Wenger's predicament yesterday after losing Tony Adams (ankle) and Martin Keown (hamstring) before kick-off and Steve Bould (muscle strain) just after half-time. They adjusted to a central trio of Scott Marshall, Remi Garde and Steve Morrow.

Garde, 5ft 9in and without a game in six weeks, played in the centre against one of the most aerially powerful attacks in the game. It was a curious decision and, although he was generally composed, it cost Arsenal the game.

Arsenal had already created three chances, and Wimbledon had lost Oyvind Leonhardsen with a studded ankle, when Garde, hassled by Marcus Gayle, needlessly conceded a corner. Twice Arsenal tried to clear it, twice Neil Ardley played the ball back in. The second cross picked out an unmarked Jones, who volleyed powerfully past John Lukic.

"It was a great finish," Joe Kinnear said. "He's having his best season for us. This year, I have really tried to help him avoid cards and suspensions." Jones, who later limped off with a calf injury, said his goal was a response to a Sunday newspaper article which had criticised his lack of skill.

Arsenal's response was prompt. Wright had already struck the far post after running on to Bould's long hoof, and Bould himself misjudged a clear heading chance. Now Paul Merson tricked Chris Perry but found Neil Sullivan had moved quickly to save, then Perry made a wonderful tackle to halt Dennis Bergkamp as he broke on the left.

Finally there came the a moment when Arsenal fans thought their eyes had deceived them. Bergkamp, with the pass of the match, found Patrick Vieira, who crossed low from the left. Wright ran in - and miskicked. It proved significant, the maturing Perry never let Wright escape again.

In goal Sullivan was equally impressive, further denying Patrick Vieira and, twice, Bergkamp, once brilliantly. Sullivan Scottish? Surely not.

Only Wimbledon's finishing - Jones apart - let them down. Robbie Earle and Ardley could have settled the game within the hour and Gayle would have done but for an excellent block by Morrow.

Afterwards Wenger complained about fixture congestion. "We did not have the physical freshness and reactions to score," he said. "The Premier League schedule is not right - we played Manchester United on Wednesday, Wimbledon played on Tuesday. Everyone should play on the same day. It means if we have four bad days like we have had, we are out of the race. The title is now an impossible dream."

What rot. United did not look too drained at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, while Wimbledon, a club of much smaller resources, have played 12 games in the last six-and-a-half weeks, three more than Arsenal.

They now have a spell of six games in 18 days. "Plenty to look forward to," Kinnear said brightly. As well he might.

Goal: Jones (22) 0-1.

Arsenal (3-5-2): Lukic; Marshall, Garde (Shaw, 79), Bould (Morrow, 47); Dixon, Parlour (Hughes, h-t), Vieira, Merson, Winterburn; Wright, Bergkamp. Substitutes not used: Selley, Harper (gk).

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell, Kimble; Ardley, Jones (McAllister, 57), Earle, Leonhardsen (Fear, 13); Ekoku, Gayle (Holdsworth, 88). Substitutes not used: Goodman, Heald (gk).

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough). Booking: Arsenal: Dixon.

Man of the match: Sullivan. Attendance: 37,854.