Big guns only firing blanks

 

The big battalions are now lined up with intent to contest the third Champions League place, but the only sound this weekend has been of opportunities spurned.

Home draws for Chelsea and Liverpool presented Arsenal with a chance to go third had they beaten Middlesbrough at the Riverside yesterday.

But shorn of their all-English backline, plus the England goalkeeper, David Seaman, who departed at half-time, they lacked the resourcefulness to prosper.

If Middlesbrough's first goal, scored by Paul Ince three minutes into the second half, ended a vague Arsenal ascendancy, then the second from Hamilton Ricard came when Arsenal's defensive chaos was at its height.

An exquisite chip from Dennis Bergkamp 20 minutes from time ensured a frantic finale, but no recovery.

No away victory since December 4th tells its own story. "Our inconsistency away from home has cost us the championship," said Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger. "But the short recovery period after European competition is a nonsense."

For Wenger, even an enactment of his football fantasy brought no release. He has been among those consulted as FIFA press for uniformity in European seasons and contends that summer football will become inevitable with England adopting a close season between November and February.

Teesside could not quite deliver summer but spring was abundant. Boro have stirred enough to safeguard their Premiership future, the Cleveland Hills shimmered in the distance and, outside the Navigation Inn, Boro fans bared their beer bellies for the first time since September.

FIFA, doubtlessly, will eventually get its wish - never underestimate the bureaucratic obsession with for standardisation - but that ignores the fact that another mild English winter has been entirely conducive to football and that any rescheduling would make dark winter days even drearier than they are now. Wenger would probably pass them on a tropical beach.

This was a strange Arsenal: Emmanuel Petit back again in central defence where he began his career and Nigel Winterburn, complete with captain's armband, in central midfield. Neither looked happy.

The greatest surprise of all, however, was to see Ray Parlour imagine himself to be a flying winger between two defenders before thudding a 20-yard shot against Mark Schwarzer's righthand post.

Arsenal's manifest aerial shortcomings left them vulnerable against the likes of Hamilton Ricard and Brian Deane. Twice, Deane rose above Silvinho to meet crosses from the left, but his first header was grabbed by Seaman at the second attempt, and his second flew wide.

However, Arsenal had most of the few creative moments before half-time. Thierry Henry, released by Nwankwo Kanu, shot against Schwarzer's legs and Kanu then almost stole in at the near post.

Arsenal were never to looked as impressive again. Seaman did not resume because of a cricked neck (the danger of a sloppy 70s hairstyle) and Alex Manninger had a tortuous start, beaten almost immediately by Ince's back-header after Curtis Fleming had headed back Christian Ziege's half-cleared corner.

Manninger then had no option but to fall on Freddie Ljungberg's back pass - Ziege blazing a hasty free kick over at the second attempt - and then conceded a second goal when Andy Campbell's energy forced a wild pass inside from Patrick Vieira and Ricard nutmegged Petit before finishing with rare subtlety.

Manninger's double-save from Ricard lifted his own spirits, and Arsenal could point to a disallowed goal for Henry, a marginally offside decision, and a possible penalty when Steve Vickers handled Petit's cross to claim that only their luck, not their spirits, was awry. That away record does not support that contention.

MIDDLESBROUGH: Schwarzer, Fleming, Vickers, Cooper, Ziege, Maddison (Mustoe 79), Ince, Summerbell, Campbell (Juninho 85), Deane, Ricard. Subs not used: Gordon, Beresford, Kilgannon. Goals: Ince 48, Ricard 63.

ARSENAL: Seaman (Manninger 46), Luzhny, Grimandi, Petit, Silvinho, Parlour (Suker 79), Vieira, Ljungberg (Bergkamp 60), Winterburn, Kanu, Henry. Subs not used: Dixon, Malz. Booked: Winterburn. Goals: Bergkamp 70.

Referee: R Harris (Oxford).