Arsenal struggle to fell Forest

 

A sharp piece of opportunism by Emmanuel Petit eased Arsenal's frustration at Highbury last night as they struggled to break down Nottingham Forest's obdurate defence.

Petit's header gave the Premiership champions the lead just before the hour, but then Geoff Thomas, having missed a chance earlier, brought the scores level in the 77th minute with a firm drive, only for Marc Overmars to restore Arsenal's lead two minutes later, hooking a rebound over Dave Beasant with a spectacular overhead kick.

Arsenal began their defence of the title amid reminders that nothing lasts for ever. The game marked the 10th anniversary of the day George Graham's championship-winning defence of Dixon, Bould, Adams and Winterburn first played together, but Martin Keown now fills Steve Bould's position while Tony Adams is talking of retirement.

Nevertheless, Forest's return to the Premiership immediately brought them face to face with what is now the definitive Arsenal of Arsene Wenger. Not that Forest were the definitive Forest. Bereft of the prolific scoring partnership of Pierre Van Hooijdonk and Kevin Campbell, injuries and suspensions had also eaten into their squad.

Yet experience was there in the shape of Steve Chettle, Steve Stone, Thomas and the 35-yearold Glyn Hodges, playing for his fourth club under Dave Bassett, and Beasant, now 39, was again a Premiership goalkeeper.

Forest set out to disrupt Arsenal's movements by packing their midfield and leaving JeanClaude Darcheville, the striker on loan from Rennes, up front. Not surprisingly, Arsenal set out from the start to launch Overmars past Thierry Bonalair on the left wing, leaving Dennis Bergkamp to unravel the opposition through the middle.

Jon Olaf Hjelde achieved two important interceptions to deny first Overmars and then Bergkamp shooting opportunities after Forest's outer cover had been pulled apart by Arsenal's passing. There was an inevitability about the home side's mounting pressure although Darchville raised a few eyebrows, not least those of Martin Keown, when he outpaced the Arsenal defender on the left before aiming a low cross towards Andy Johnson which Nigel Winterburn just managed to clear.

Arsenal almost scored in the 24th minute when Nicolas Anelka gathered a lob from Patrick Vieira and drove a narrow-angled shot against the foot of the near post.

Ten minutes before half-time Forest were again close to disrupting Arsenal's prescripted `triumphant return to the Premiership'. Bonalair's pace opened up the left wing and a well-timed pass sent Darcheville clear and onside. Again the shooting angle was narrow, however, and David Seaman was able to save feet-first.

The hamstring injury suffered by Hjelde at the end of the first half brought on Des Lyttle for the second and forced Forest to reorganise slightly at the back. In the 56th minute Bergkamp's through pass found Anelka sprinting clear and for once not offside, but it was only to shot wide. The breakthrough for Arsenal came in the 58th minute, courtesy of Adams's power in the air and Petit's quick reflexes.

Forest having conceded a freekick on the right, Bergkamp floated the ball towards the far post where Adams headed it against the bar. Petit ducked in to nod the ball back past Beasant.

Arsenal: Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Vieira, Adams, Anelka, Bergkamp, Overmars, Keown, Parlour, Petit. Subs Not Used: Bould, Manninger, Hughes, Garde, Boa Morte. Goals: Petit 58, Overmars 79.

Nottingham Forest: Beasant, Rogers, Chettle, Hjelde (Lyttle 45), Stone, Johnson (Harewood 83), Armstrong, Thomas, Bonalair, Darcheville (Freedman 80), Hodges. Subs Not Used: Crossley, Dawson. Booked: Hodges, Stone. Goal: Thomas 76.

Referee: M Riley (Leeds).