Arsenal show no charity at home from home

 

This time the FA Charity Shield provided not so much a prologue to the new season as a postscript to the old. Certainly for Manchester United, well beaten by the Double winners Arsenal, the occasion was more of an epitaph, a reminder of why they had finished their last campaign empty-handed.

At least finishing runners-up to Arsene Wenger's team in the Premiership assured United of a chance to reach for the Champions League via the second qualifying round, in which they will meet LKS Lodz on Wednesday with the return in Poland a fortnight later. It is a hurdle Alex Ferguson's players should overcome, although the fitful nature of yesterday's performance suggested last season's problems, far from going away, are already threatening to multiply.

Wembley will be Arsenal's home from home this season in the Champions League. They won the Charity Shield much in the manner of a home team, achieving little during the first half-hour but rarely looking like losing the game once Marc Overmars put them ahead in the 34th minute.

This time last year doubts were expressed about the depth of Wenger's squad compared to the talent available to Ferguson but the way Arsenal kept their shape and momentum amid a proliferation of substitutions in the second half suggested that balance has shifted the other way.

Ferguson, for example, is still looking for a striker of sufficient quality to make United a power again both at home and abroad. Wenger, by contrast took off both Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp, who had a tightened hamstring, and was still able to pose an attacking threat through Christopher Wreh and Luis Boa Morte.

Arsenal's other main attacking option, Nicolas Anelka, stayed on for the 90 minutes, much to the discomfort of Jaap Stam, the centre-back for whom Manchester United paid PSV Eindhoven £10.75 million as a replacement for Gary Pallister.

Perhaps they thought they were paying this sum in guilders. Either way it continues to look an exorbitant amount for a defender whose solid tackling is offset by his lack of speed on the turn.

The enduring strength of Arsenal's central defenders, and in particular Tony Adams, will always sharpen the contrast when opponents make mistakes at the back. Adams looked far happier coping with the tireless but limited efforts of Andy Cole than trying to track down stray Romanians in the World Cup.

Arsenal's French midfield pair, Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, had certainly more vivid World Cup memories than any of those around or against them who had been involved in the finals. For a time it looked as though their thoughts still lay trapped in the celebrations barely four weeks earlier.

United enjoyed their best period while Vieira and Petit were re-tuning their concentration. Roy Keane, playing his first competitive game since damaging cruciate ligaments 11 months earlier, appeared to have restored important solidity to the United midfield.

With Teddy Sheringham on the bench, however, United's movements lacked a focal point, not to mention the strength in the air necessary to challenge Arsenal's lofty defence. Ferguson's failure so far to sign an alternative to Sheringham could revive his importance at Old Trafford. True, he did drag his team's best chance wide late on, after replacing Cole, but at least he had put himself in a position to score.

By then United's afternoon had long lost its point. They never really recovered from falling behind 11 minutes before half-time to a goal which punished muddled defending.

Vieira's long pass dropped to Bergkamp in the penalty area with neither centre-back closing the Dutchman down. Bergkamp's back-heel was intercepted by Ronny Johnsen, but the ball then bounced off Anelka to Overmars, who hooked it smartly past Peter Schmeichel.

As the United bench began to empty, so their football became cramped and even more vulnerable to the pace on Arsenal's flanks. Four minutes before the hour, Overmars and Anelka worked the ball to Wreh, who darted through to increase their lead.

United fell further behind after 71 minutes. Ray Parlour's searching pass found Anelka easily outpacing Stam to beat Schmeichel at his near post.

Arsenal: Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Vieira (Grimandi 84), Adams (Bould 79), Anelka, Bergkamp (Wreh 46), Overmars (Hughes 67), Keown, Parlour, Petit (Boa Morte 72). Subs Not Used: Vivas, Manninger. Booked: Keown. Goals: Overmars 33, Wreh 56, Anelka 71.

Manchester United: Schmeichel, G Neville, Irwin, Johnsen, Stam, Beckham, Butt (Solskjaer 53), Cole (Sheringham 70), Giggs (P. Neville 70), Keane (Berg 75), Scholes (Cruyff 70). Subs Not Used: Culkin, May. Booked: G Neville, Irwin.

Referee: G Poll (Tring, Hertfordshire).