North London woes


Inter Milan's Julio Ricardo Cruz slots the ball past Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann to score the first goal during the UEFA Champions League first stage Group B match at Highbury.-ROSS KINNAIRD/GETTY IMAGES

TROUBLE in North London. In the course of a few recent days, things well and truly fell apart at both famous local clubs. On a Wednesday, Arsenal were humiliated at Highbury in a European Cup match by an Inter team which had been struggling in the new Campionato and continued to do so the following Sunday. That day, Arsenal went to Old Trafford and disgraced themselves. They may have got a 0-0 draw against Manchester United, but the horrific behaviour of their players afterwards, when several of them attacked the United centre forward Ruud van Nistelrooy, laid them open to severe punishment by the Football Association; a heavy fine and a series of suspensions which could blunt the edge of their Championship challenge.

The previous day, I was at Tottenham to watch Spurs feebly capitulate 3-1 to Southampton. "And now you've got to believe us, you're going to get the sack!" ruthlessly chorused the fans of Southampton, who had not forgiven the way Glenn Hoddle had walked out on them to become manager of his old club as a player, Spurs. The following day they proved all too correct as Hoddle was indeed sacked. There were those who deplored the action, given that this was only Tottenham's sixth league match of the season, but others pointed out that Spurs had had an appalling run since last Christmas.

As one who had also reported the previous Tottenham home game, when they lost just as ineptly 3-0 in the local derby against Fulham — whose own manager, Christ Coleman, admitted to me afterwards that he would have been satisfied with a 0-0 draw — I was not surprised at Hoddle's defenestration. His team looked a demoralised, ill-organised bunch, their defence a bad joke.

I thought in particular of what happened in the 83rd minute, when the Saints' midfielder, Chris Marsden, scarcely a playmaker in the category of Hoddle himself in his distinguished day, made what turned out to be a killing through pass, which totally split the paralysed Spurs central defence. Luckily for Tottenham when the usually lethal Kevin Phillips ran on to the ball, outflanked the American 'keeper, Kezey Keller, and held off the Irish right back Stevie Carr, he profligately hit the bar. But the whole scene told you what was so wrong with Tottenham and certainly diminished sympathy for Hoddle.

Shortly before the Gunners began that ultimately notorious match at Old Trafford, Inter, at home in San Siro, were comfortably held to a 0-0 draw by Sampdoria, the Genoese team which had only just been promoted back into Serie A. The Inter team was pretty much the same which had played ducks and drakes with the feeble Arsenal defence at Highbury, where the sheer pace of the 20-year-old Nigerian, Martins, abetted by the wiles of the Argentine international centre forward Julio Cruz, were too much for an Arsenal rearguard with such inadequate full backs — Lauren and Ashley Cole — and a centre half in Sol Campbell who has been erratic. Moreover, Inter had relatively little trouble with the Gunners' attack, though Thierry Henry did miss a penalty, which might have made all the difference.

If the Inter attack looked irresistible at Highbury, it was anything but at San Diro, the following Sunday, Walter Novellino, the Sampdoria coach, deployed his 4-4-2 defence with a rigour and intelligence, which might have served Arsene Wenger of Arsenal well four days earlier. He deployed man to man marking, faced little threat from Martins and Cruz and thoroughly deserved the point, which his team won. It might be a good idea for Arsene Wenger to study the video of that match.

Meanwhile, Arsene even after seven years at Highbury remains a curiously controversial figure. Is he really as good a manager as most say? Or has he produced what in essence is an ill-disciplined team of high-class rabbit killers? One which can excel at home with League and FA Cup doubles, but after all this time has still failed to make any kind of real impact on the Blue Riband of football, the European Champions Cup. Time after time the Gunners have fallen prey to foreign teams they should notionally have beaten, losing at home to the likes of a Fiorentina in crisis, Barcelona and Lens; not least at Wembley, where Wenger tended to blame it on the greater size of the pitch!

At Old Trafford, the mayhem was ignited when Van Nistelrooy clashed with Patrick Vieira, so often in the wars, so often expelled. They crashed down together, and an incensed Vieira who had just been booked flicked out a foot at the Dutchman. He did not connect but Steve Bennett the referee, sticking strictly to the book, deemed it enough of an offence to send him off.

The Tottenham Hotspur manager Glenn Hoddle was sacked following his team's dismal start to the new Premiership season.-CLIVE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES

Subsequently, at the very death, Van Nistelrooy missed a penalty, striking the bar, which was the signal for an outburst of brutal behaviour by half a dozen Arsenal players. Martin Keown, the centre back, jumped and jibbered about like a possessed orangutan and, at the final whistle, climbed Van Nistelrooy across the back of the neck. Ray Parlour struck him, too.

To his credit, Van Nistelrooy did not retaliate; he merely ran the gauntlet of physical and verbal abuse and made his way to the dressing room; where, later he would be confronted by Vieira.

There was strictly limited sympathy for Arsenal over the sending off of the 52nd red card in Wenger's reign — given that in their previous League game against Portsmouth at Highbury, they'd equalised through a non-existent penalty, when their French attacker, Robert Pires, had dived under a challenge.

I was at that game too, after which, while Harry Redknapp the Pompey manager fumed, Wenger said he'd looked at television and couldn't really see what happened. He never does. It's long since become a bad joke. Indeed, I still feel that his ideal half back line would be The Three Wise Monkeys, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil. Immediately after the Old Trafford fracas, his criticism was all for Van Nistelrooy rather than his own men. Time and again he has defended Vieira when the French international has been sent off. Such indulgence surely must have much to do with the club's appalling disciplinary record, which, appropriately, has cost it so dear, losing key players for sustained periods. Last season, the suspensions of Vieira and Campbell probably lost it the Championship.

So, in those few days, Wenger's reputation was tarnished both as a tactician and as disciplinarian. Just as well he cuts such a dignified, imposing figure.