Merson runs into a Gayle

Wimbledon 2 Jones 44, Gayle 67 Arsenal 2 Wright 6, Merson 64 At tendance: 25,521
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The Independent Online
Wimbledon declined the invitation to dine at the top of the table for the first time in 10 years. Their guests instead retained the place after a fiercely fought, incident-crammed contest at Selhurst Park yesterday.

They should still see this as pickings gained, rather than cutlery dropped, however, as they muscle in on the early- season pecking order. Twice Arsenal took the lead, playing the more palatable, more creative football; twice Wimbledon clawed their way back by reverting to their pinball past.

"I heard they had changed their ways," said the Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger. "Today they were really traditional." He was upset that a lenient referee in Paul Alcock had permitted over-robust challenges on his defenders, he added, with Steve Bould requiring stitches in a head wound and Tony Adams plastered for the first time in months. Visitors to Highbury have been known to claim the opposite.

"For our defenders it was a heading session. For their defenders it was a kicking session," Wenger added, referring to the differing styles of play. Wimbledon had "deliberately avoided to play", he believed, bemused also that only his own Patrick Vieira and Martin Keown were booked.

It was indeed ugly stuff at times, though always intense and absorbing, as Wimbledon sought to recreate the tactics that had brought themselves success against the toffs from across London in the past. Arsenal always matched their hosts for physical commitment but in the first half were drawn into the cavalier swapping of possession, true indeed to their own pre-Bruce Rioch recent past.

The explosive start to the game set the tone. As statement of intent, Vinnie Jones passed the ball from the kick-off back to Neil Sullivan for the goalkeeper to launch a long kick. Robbie Earle touched it on and with Bould dallying, Efan Ekoku nipped in to round David Seaman, being brought down in the process.

It looked a certain penalty, and possibly a sending-off, both of which would have redirected the match after only 17 seconds, but the referee refused all Wimbledon's exhortations. "Blatant," lamented the Wimbledon manager, Joe Kinnear.

Home sense of injustice was fuelled soon after when Ian Wright gave Arsenal the lead. The toweringly impressive Vieira, dropping back from midfield to defence in the temporary absence of Bould, robbed Ekoku and ran fully 60 yards before slipping Wright free to sidefoot past Sullivan.

It was the Premiership's leading scorer's 13th goal of the season to celebrate his 33rd birthday today and his recall to the England squad; but the real credit went to the 20-year-old Frenchman, as the Arsenal support acknowledged by chanting his name.

For failing to double the lead - Wright's volley saved by Sullivan and Ben Thatcher clearing Adams's header off the line - Arsenal were punished just before half-time. Paul Merson inadvertently handled Neil Ardley's cross and from the same player's free-kick, Jones's near-post downward header found Seaman's left corner.

After Wenger's half-time insistence to get the ball down and pass it more, Arsenal regained control of the match, though still prepared to fight; quite literally. When Earle challenged Seaman under a high ball, an angry melee ensued, ending with Keown being spoken to.

Having survived that, it was just reward when Arsenal also regained the lead. Wright sent Merson racing clear in the side channel with a piercing pass and he found the far corner with a rare left-footed cross-shot. As Wright celebrated, he was felled by Jones, the Arsenal striker intervening with the referee to defer punishment, to which Mr Alcock questionably acceded.

For all their resurfacing excesses, Wimbledon's spirit could never be questioned and within five minutes they were level once more. A cross driven in from the right found Marcus Gayle at the far post and at the second attempt, with some help from Thatcher, he bundled the ball into the net.

"Blinding game," said Kinnear, his view perhaps tinged with relief at an unbeaten run being extended to nine matches. "Real blood and thunder stuff," he added more accurately.

Arsenal's own unbeaten sequence is now in double figures and with Wenger off the field, and Vieira on it, bringing some sophistication to accompany the resilience, perhaps a London club will still be breaking bread with the Northern feast of clubs come season's end.

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