Bergkamp is a man apart

 

Before the start of Arsenal's match against Barnsley at Highbury on Saturday Dennis Bergkamp received four awards for being various flavours of the month. By half-time he had scored twice and set up another goal to ensure Arsenal's retention of top place in the FA Premiership and Barnsley's arrival at the bottom.

No sooner had the half-time whistle blown and the teams left the field than David Dein walked on to the pitch holding a trophy which gleamed in the autumn sunshine. Bergkamp, it appeared, was about to become player of the month for October since there seemed to be no point in hanging the thing out.

Actually Arsenal's vice-chairman was there to present the prize to the successful Arsenal women's side, who would probably have fancied their own chances against a Barnsley defence whose Nationwide slip continues to show. But Bergkamp held centre stage to the end and if one footballer can deny Manchester United a fifth championship in six seasons it is surely he.

Even in its most optimistic mood Highbury could never have imagined that Arsenal would one day be blessed with a footballer who combined the skill, vision and inventiveness of Liam Brady with the strength, craft, striking power and occasional spikiness of Charlie George. Throw in Bergkamp's overriding qualities, which include an athleticism not common in English players, and it hardly seems an exaggeration to say that nothing quite like him has ever been seen in an Arsenal shirt.

It has got to the point where regular Bergkamp watchers knew what was coming the moment Nigel Winterburn fed the ball into the Dutchman from the left after 25 minutes. After all, we had been here before. Sure enough, from a position near the lefthand corner of the penalty area, Bergkamp dragged the ball on to his right foot before beating David Watson, the Barnsley goalkeeper, with a swerving, dipping shot into the far corner of the net.

Seven minutes later there was a similar feeling of inevitability as Patrick Vieira launched Bergkamp between the Barnsley centre-backs to score his 11th goal of the season with a flick of his right foot. Bergkamp then gathered a pass from Ian Wright and drew Watson towards him before granting Ray Parlour, who had already hit a post, the privilege of scoring Arsenal's third into an empty net on the stroke of half-time.

David Platt, who had come on for Parlour, headed a fourth, from Emmanuiel Petit's corner, just past the hour and Ian Wright, released by Nigel Winterburn's pass, slipped past Eric Tinkler's lunge to complete the scoring, and Arsenal's biggest league win for five-and-a-half years, before giving way to Luis Boa Morte.

The contest may have been undemanding and Arsenal have played better this season, but as a convalescence after the disappointment of going out of the UEFA Cup to PAOK Salonika the occasion could not have been more suitable. And the continuing form of Bergkamp quickly reminded home supporters of where the priorities still lay.

Next month Arsenal meet Manchester United and Liverpool in successive home matches. In early December they visit Newcastle with Blackburn due at Highbury a week later.

If Arsene Wenger's team is to enter the new year in a position of strength at the top of the table it is essential that Bergkamnp maintains form and fitness. He also needs to steer clear of trouble. A fifth yellow card and he could miss three of these important games.

"Is there nothing this man cannot do?" yelled a closed-circuit rhetorician as Arsenal's TV screens replayed Bergkamp's opening goal. To which the short answer was "yes, fly". In fact the Arsenal manager, asked if there were parts of Bergkamp's game which still could be improved, said he felt the player could do better in the air. And Wenger was not joking.

Comparisons being inevitable, Wenger was persuaded to draw parallels between Bergkamp and the Gianfranco Zola of four years ago, or the young Roberto Baggio. "He is a little bit like Eric Cantona," the Arsenal manager added, "but maybe with a little bit more pace." Only maybe?

Barnsley could be bumping along at the bottom of the Premiership for some time. The leakage of 28 goals in 10 matches has quickly brought reality to Oakwell after the euphoria of winning promotion. Before Saturday Barnsley and Arsenal had not met in a league fixture since 1915 and Danny Wilson's defence badly needs to mug up on trench warfare.

At Highbury Arjan De Zeeuw and Eric Tinkler were left hanging on the old barbed wire while Adrian Moses expected the sea of Arsenal red to close in on him at any moment. Yet for 25 minutes Barnsley competed on more or less equal terms and but for David Seaman's agility in keeping out De Zeeuw's downward header with one hand would have taken the lead.

For Wilson the story had a grim familiarity. "For 25 minutes it was okay, then the floodgates opened," he said. "If we don't score the first goal we struggle. You work on things, day in and day out, but we still keep making the same mistakes."

Some will say that Barnsley's biggest mistake was going up. To which Oakwell folk can rightly retort that tha knows nowt about owt till tha's tried it. But for Wilson and his team there are more trying times ahead.