Arsenal counters friendly fire

AN hour before kick-off, scarcely a goal-kick away from the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, a middle-aged couple sat in a restaurant resplendent in Southampton face paint, yellow replica shirts and clutching Saints flags.


The victorious Arsenal team which won the FA Cup. — Pic. MIKE HEWITT/GETTY IMAGES-

AN hour before kick-off, scarcely a goal-kick away from the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, a middle-aged couple sat in a restaurant resplendent in Southampton face paint, yellow replica shirts and clutching Saints flags. Some Arsenal fans on a nearby table wished them luck. "Oh, no,'' the couple explained, "we couldn't get tickets but our son did so we drove him down.'' Yet they were dressed for the part, for the party. Arsenal's footballers won the day but Southampton's followers made the day.

Normally the vanquished make their excuses and leave the moment the final whistle blows. Not Southampton's followers. Sportingly, they stayed to applaud David Seaman and Patrick Vieira lift the FA Cup.

"It's nice to get underdogs along who appreciate the game,'' reflected Southampton's manager, Gordon Strachan. "I don't think fans of big clubs really appreciate the Cup final because they come here so often. Our end was full an hour before the game. If you looked at the Arsenal end there was hardly anyone there.''

Arsenal's followers, almost season ticket holders at the Millennium Stadium, were busy visiting familiar drinking haunts but, in situ, they too made the atmosphere so special. Barring the odd streak of pre-match triumphalism in a banner that read "Arsenal: 2003 FA Cup winners'', it was the Londoners' supporters who screamed to get medical attention for Antti Niemi when he was writhing around with a torn calf muscle. As Southampton's outstanding keeper was borne away on a stretcher, Arsenal fans to a man, woman and child stood to express their sympathy. This was the friendly final. Even after a boisterous Saturday night, the police reported only three arrests.

If only the match could live up to the occasion, a frequent lament with recent finals. The freedom of expression in the stands contrasts with the inhibition blighting the football, a problem exacerbated here by Strachan's suffocating tactics, of closing down opponents and only opening up with aerial passes to James Beattie. "Southampton had a game-plan of long balls and a physical side which they thought was the way to win the trophy,'' observed Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's manager.

In defending a one-dimensional approach that damaged the final as a spectacle, Strachan countered: "Arsenal are one of the best teams in the world so we had to play reality football. We had to cut out the frills and get the ball to Beattie as early as possible.''

In omitting the creative but defensively suspect Fabrice Fernandes, Strachan signalled his spoiling tactics. Wenger threw another cause on to the mound of excuses. "When two teams are awful it is because the fear of losing is stronger than the desire to win,'' said the Arsenal manager. "I felt the pressure our group of players was under to win something had an impact. Not having won the championship put us under extra pressure. I can understand everybody loves underdogs but that makes it more difficult for the favourites. We go in there knowing that if we lose, it's a disaster, and if we win we have done our job.''

Fortunately for Wenger, he has Thierry Henry, whose pace bamboozled Southampton's defence. Finals usually end with players swapping shirts but this one began with Claus Lundekvam making a sustained attempt to acquire Henry's as he sped into the box. The stitching somehow held and Henry eventually escaped, only to be denied by Niemi. Graham Barber played advantage but by not punishing Lundekvam at the time or retrospectively, a usually competent referee effectively condoned the defender's rank cheating. Lundekvam got away with the offence, sending out a message that cheats can prosper.

Sympathy for the underdog is a legitimate emotion but it was difficult to be seduced by Southampton's strategy or dark acts like Lundekvam's. That is why it was so pleasing to see Arsenal exact revenge. Dennis Bergkamp, still a sublime contributor, and the marvellous Henry went close and although the highly promising Chris Baird threatened briefly for Southampton, class prevailed.

There was a sense of sweet justice when a fine, 38th-minute move flowing between Ray Parlour, Henry and Bergkamp led to Freddie Ljungberg's shot rebounding off Lundekvam. The ball fell to Robert Pires, who placed it smartly past Niemi. "One nil to the Arsenal'' is a familiar refrain but the lyrics would have been embellished but for wayward finishing by Pires and Ljungberg.

Henry then exaggerated the impact of a challenge from the excellent Michael Svensson and was cautioned for diving, much to the Frenchman's disbelief. The roots of the incident lay in Barber's first-minute inertia over Lundekvam and Henry's traditional resentment over any injustice. Henry must be the first person to take more than an hour to fall over.

But even Strachan defended him. "I don't think that was a dive,'' said the Southampton manager. "Henry's not a diver. It doesn't always have to be a penalty or a dive. There can be a tackle and somebody falls at the same time.'' Henry, though, certainly made a snack, if not a meal, when brushed by Svensson's leg.

Henry, who has committed himself to Arsenal until 2007, was still named man of the match but it must have been a close call ahead of a defiant Oleg Luzhny, who relished shackling Beattie.

Southampton menaced only late on. Seaman briefly defied the summons from Father Time, a weakness seen in his slow reaction to crosses and corners, to push away Brett Ormerod's volley. The former England keeper was still grateful to Ashley Cole for clearing a Beattie header off the line.

Seaman has told Wenger he wants another year's playing contract, a desire rebuffed by the Arsenal manager, who clearly would like the 39-year-old to bow out at the top with images fresh of him cradling the FA Cup.

"I will make a definite decision in the next week,'' said Wenger. "David wants to carry on. He doesn't feel that he has diminished in quality. But we cannot think short-term; the season at Arsenal is 60 games.'' If Wenger is to sign Rustu Recber from Fenerbahce, it has to be established that Seaman is present solely for coaching and the odd emergency. Seaman may react by seeking employment elsewhere.

As well as a keeper of Recber's elasticity, Arsenal require another centre-half and cover at right-back. "We need one to three players,'' said Wenger. "We scored 85 goals, which is tremendous, but we conceded 42 and we could do with 10 less. Our target is to improve the balance defensively without losing that offensive drive.''

As Wenger departed to sort out his back line, Strachan wandered off, flushed with pride at the unstinting enthusiasm of Southampton's players and supporters.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003