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Alarm bells sounding for Everton

Everton
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Rewind to Boxing Day 1963

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Villans hold misfiring Gunners

There can be no doubting his brilliance when at the peak of his powers, but when Arsenal have needed him to hammer home their advantage, Thierry Henry tends to wilt under the pressure.

It almost seems criminal to raise a question against a player who has had few peers in the Premiership this season, but when they have needed him most in the last few weeks, Henry has gone missing.

Think back to his glaring misses in the 2000 FA Cup Final against Liverpool and then his less than convincing displays as the Gunners closed in on Double glory last season. It was the likes of Freddie Ljungberg and Sylvain Wiltord that pushed Arsene Wenger's men over the line as Henry was well below his best.

His woeful display at Blackburn last month, in a game that opened the door for United to close the gap at the top of the table, was a sign he may be starting to crack under the strain this season and, don't forget, he didn't have enough class to take the Gunners into the last eight of the Champions League when push came to shove.

It is hardly the record of a striker who was hailed as the best in the world earlier this season.

After starring for France in the last week, tired legs could not be an excuse as Arsenal looked to answer Manchester United early morning warning that they are determined to ensure this title race goes all the way. Yet the reality is that unless Henry finds his spark in double quick time, the Gunners title bid could drift away.

Today's lifeless display did little to suggest they are about to go on the sort of winning run required at this point in the season.

With Robert Pires, Thierry's supplier in chief, likely to be out with injury for the next couple of weeks at least, only one side has any momentum going into that mammoth game between the top two at Highbury on Wednesday week – and it's not Arsenal.

It was just under a year ago that Arsene Wenger was talking about a shift in power at the top of English football, but the signs are his boasts may have been a little premature. While Arsenal may still be favourites to win this fascinating title race, all eyes appear to have fallen on Manchester United for the first time in over a year.

Wenger would not like to admit as much, but the biggest club in the land are flexing their muscles, while his charges look to be fading in the spring sunshine.

But the French boss continues to spout confident words despite the obvious tension gripping his side. 'People may say we have given United a chance to come back into this now, but I know we will come through in the end,' he vowed. 'We play them next and hopefully that will be our night to show what this team can do.'

Graham Taylor's decision to change his side's formation and employ a back five may have taken Wenger by surprise and they could easily have been ahead as Gareth Barry was presented with a chance on the angle after 15 minute. He blasted over the bar, but the Gunners failed to respond to that wake up call.

Ulises de la Cruz tracks Freddie Ljungberg
Ulises de la Cruz tracks Freddie Ljungberg

Gilberto had their best efforts of the first half with two tame headers and their lack of urgency was bizarre with the season entering the final furlong.

Wenger is no tea cup thrower, but whatever is his equivalent must have been on display in that newly refurbished Villa Park dressing room. This was not a side that looked as if their life depended on victory in this game, but Graham Taylor's men could take some credit for that after their battling display.

The tide appeared to have turned after the break as first Henry saw his dipping shot fly just over the bar, then an error by Villa keeper Peter Enkleman offered Freddie Ljungberg the chance to stab home, but the Swede pushed his shot side.

He was not to be so wasteful a couple of minutes later as a flowing Arsenal move saw Bergkamp and Henry combine, and Ljungberg was there to open the scoring after Enkleman spilled Gilberto's 56th minute shot.

Instead of pushing on for a second, Arsenal allowed Villa back into the game and after a period of sustained pressure, a scramble in the box 20 minutes from time finished with Kolo Toure smashing the ball into his own net.

There was an air of inevitability about the Gunners concession and their tired legs did not look ready to chase a crucial second.

Wenger accepted his men should have finished off Villa when the chance was there. 'We have so many frustrations from this game because the chances were there to finish Villa off,' he moaned.

'They did nothing but defend all day. It made it difficult for us to do anything because they just sat back and didn't want to go forward. Once we were ahead, that should have been it. Villa did not create anything all day, but we still allow them to get a goal and then we did not have enough energy to find a second.

Villa boss Graham Taylor defended his decision to use the defensive tactics that infuriated Wenger and was delighted with his point. 'We showed the sort of commitment you need against a team like Arsenal and got the break when we needed it,' said the former England boss. 'This was a great result against a top class side. On their day Arsenal are untouchable, but we held them well I felt.'

Arsene Wenger needs his trump card to prove his worth in the next few weeks as Arsenal without a potent Thierry Henry simply won't frighten the opposition. And on this evidence, United have nothing to fear when they travel to Highbury for the game of the season in 11 days time.

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