Arsenal suffer in company of strangers

Steve Tongue@stevetongue
Sunday 16 March 2003 01:00

The memory that looms largest from Arsenal's last visit to Valencia's intimidating Mestalla stadium is of the lanky striker John Carew climbing above Tony Adams and heading a routine cross past David Seaman to knock Arsène Wenger's team out of the Champions' League.

That was in April 2001, since when much has changed and much has stayed the same. Arsenal, who were trailing far behind Manchester United in the Premiership at the time (they finished the season 10 points in arrears), have gone on to eclipse their northern rivals as the leading domestic side, but have failed to establish themselves even as England's leading contenders to become European champions. Two years on, with another failure in between, a disturbing run of four successive draws, the last of them against Roma's 10 men at Highbury on Tuesday, has now threatened their prospects of joining United and possibly even Newcastle among the competition's last eight survivors.

As they seek the point in Spain that will take them through whatever happens in Roma's home game with Ajax the same night, much is being made of profligate attacking and an apparent desire to score only beautiful goals. Less attention has been paid to the defensive vulner-ability that could prove crucial on Wednesday and was again evident last week.

The absences of Sol Campbell, just as the mountainous defender was returning to something like his best form, and Ashley Cole were not only critical in themselves against Roma but meant that the Arsenal back four, once a byword for intimacy, suddenly resembled a company of strangers. Before last Tuesday, Pascal Cygan had only ever played alongside Martin Keown in one match – the wholly unimpressive 2-0 defeat by United at Old Trafford last December. Worse, Cygan had only appeared once with Giovanni van Bronckhorst alongside him at left-back.

Rewind to the two worst moments of Tuesday's game. With Highbury anticipating its half-time tea and Arsenal ahead from Patrick Vieira's early header, Roma's midfielder Emerson plays an optimistic ball forward; Van Bronckhorst moves out to catch Antonio Cassano offside, Cygan, ball-watching, drops back but still finds the feisty Italian nipping through on his blind side to poach a perfectly timed equalising goal.

On to the 84th minute, with Arsenal pressing in attack, yet finding four defenders incapable of guarding Cassano's replacement as the single striker, Vincenzo Montella. Van Bronckhorst, not a natural full-back, is out of position, Cygan, failing to cover the flank, is beaten for pace and the ageing Cafu crosses perfectly to give Montella an uncontested header, which he manages to steer over Seaman's crossbar.

A defeat would have left Arsenal in a parlous position going into this week's final round of matches. In keeping Roma's hopes alive and therefore giving them the incentive to defeat Ajax, the draw was actually more useful than a win, though it was probably just as well nobody realised that at the time – imagine Wenger on the touchline screaming at his team not to score a winning goal. (It might have explained the wayward shooting of Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord, but was not, in fact, the intention.)

"Roma will have to do everything to win, so that's maybe the best thing about this game," said Van Bronckhorst. "We were unhappy with the result, but we're still in it. Now anyone can go through and anyone can go out." The Dutchman will remain at left-back but with Seaman now doubtful he must hope that Campbell suffers no further reaction to his Achilles strain and is able to replace Cygan, who has not fulfilled the promise of his early performances in the team last autumn.

Wenger remains confident ("what is over-confidence?") that Arsenal will join United in the quarter-final by coming through this group of draws (six in 10 matches, with every chance of two more to come). Despite the recent crop of injuries, he feels, unlike Sir Alex Ferguson, that his squad is strong enough, while admitting what European results confirm: "We are not the perfect team."

ITV viewers entranced by Real Madrid's performance in beating Milan 3-1 on Wednesday saw something closer to perfection, especially in the second goal sculpted by Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos and Raul.

For Newcastle, meanwhile, similarly lax defending has threatened to undermine another startling recovery after emphatic defeats by Internazionale and Barcelona in the opening two games. As their manager Sir Bobby Robson put it after headers by Christian Vieri and Ivan Cordoba earned the Italians an invaluable point in the San Siro: "You can't concede goals from crosses like that at this level." Nor, in Arsenal's case, from harmless balls down the middle.

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