Arsenal 5 Leicester City 0
Anelka 23, 27, 44, Parlour 42, 48
Half-time: 4-0 Attendance: 38,069
IT ALL made you wonder whether, with Arsenal in this mood of savage intent, Sheffield United might be better advised not to return here on Tuesday night after all.
A week ago, Highbury was a combustible scene of barely-controlled emotions, of accusations and counter-accusations, with Arsenal's visitors only mollified by a rare gesture by Arsene Wenger. Yesterday, there was not a hint of charity from the Arsenal manager and his side, of whom Dennis Bergkamp was at his most contemptuous for the visitors, creating no fewer than four of the Gunners' goals with the teenage Frenchman Nicolas Anelka claiming his first hat-trick in English football.
Leicester, deprived of several crucial personnel, including the unfit Emile Heskey and leading scorer Tony Cottee, who was rested, are betraying ominous signs of being hauled into a morass of relegation possibles. Even a Worthington Cup final would be of little consolation if City continue to surrender as obligingly as they did yesterday. O'Neill's men resembled not so much Foxes as lambs, accepting their fate from the moment Anelka scored his first goal.
Afterwards the Ulsterman felt compelled to stride over to the assembled City faithful and proffer apologies. "I said sorry to them for that display, and I haven't done that too many times in my three years," he explained in an unusually subdued tone. "We were useless."
Four-nil to the good at half-time, Leicester's tormentors scored again soon after and the Gunners' supporters must have been savouring a scoreline to compare with the three occasions Arsenal have put eight past Leicester here. But mindful of more severe challenges to follow, Wenger decided to substitute Marc Overmars, Patrick Vieira and Anelka, who along with a revitalised Bergkamp, having missed the Manchester United game, had been at their scintillating best.
Though Arsenal continued to assert their supremacy, Leicester were allowed to get off lightly by the champions. "Boring, boring, Arsenal," sang the North Bank, with more than a touch of irony. "The Manchester United result gave us a great lift mentally and our confidence was high," Wenger said. "Bergkamp was outstanding and the timing of his passing was marvellous, and Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka were excellent as well." The precocious Anelka, who has now scored 12 goals this season, has flourished as the campaign has progressed and is timing his runs far more precisely. "People forget that he is only 19 years old, and that this is his first [full] season in English football," Wenger stressed. "He is learning very quickly and once he's in front, he knows that nobody can catch him."
Petit, or not Petit, that is the question. The answer may tell us whether Arsenal can maintain the challenge to retain their title, although the Frenchman, missing because of suspension, but who has a "chronic" ankle inflammation according to his manager, was scarcely missed yesterday, such was the paucity of Leicester's resistance. Wenger revealed that the influential midfielder could return in two weeks.
For all the euphoria following Wednesday night's victory over Sunderland which pitched them into the Worthington Cup final against Spurs, the Foxes are on a dismal run in the Premiership, having now not won for six games. They have also failed to score a League goal for 287 minutes. With some of those sides below them beginning to show signs of life come the first signs of spring, O'Neill can ill-afford to allow the downturn in fortunes to become a habit. With Steve Walsh left on the bench, the City manager deployed the Icelander, Arnar Gunnlaugsson, a pounds 2m purchase from Bolton, in a lone front- running role, with Muzzy Izzet just behind, a la Bergkamp and Anelka. There the similarity ended.
Arsenal required 22 minutes to seize the advantage, but once ahead, they broke through Leicester almost at will. Bergkamp almost nonchalantly lobbed the ball forward and Anelka's pace took him clear of Frank Sinclair. The finish was as clinical as we have come to expect from him. It needed only five minutes for the pair to repeat the feat. This time Bergkamp's delicate pass caught the Leicester defence square, with Anelka timing his run perfectly, and the rest was a formality.
Patrick Vieira was yet again a colossus in midfield and he brought fresh terrors to O'Neill's men six minutes before the break with a fine run and pass to Bergkamp, which the Dutchman despatched just over the bar. But that was one of two finishing lapses on a remarkable afternoon for Bergkamp, who within seconds had fashioned a chance for Ray Parlour to make it three. Arsenal were irrepressible by now and, just into added time, Overmars worked himself cleverly into a position on the byline before crossing for Anelka to complete his hat-trick.
It was Bergkamp, inevitably, who set up Parlour for his second three minutes after the interval. And then it was exhibition stuff with the best effort coming from the foot of Vieira, who struck a post. Leicester, who brought on Walsh at half-time and despatched Matthew Elliott into the forward line, took 62 minutes to get in their only attempt on goal. It came from Gunnlaugsson and it was wide. That just about summed up their afternoon.
As O'Neill put it: "They have world-class players and we have a million miles to go before we approach those standards."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies