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Dec 13, 2006

Adebayor shows Gunners reserve

Wigan Athletic 0 - 1 Arsenal

Ubiquitous at the Emirates Stadium in the derby defeat of Tottenham 11 days ago (despite not doing anything as mundane as actually playing), Thierry Henry was conspicuous by his absence from the JJB Stadium.

Neither celebrating on the touchline or strolling and sprinting with idiosyncratic brilliance in attack, Arsenal's captain was elsewhere.

It offered an opportunity to assess the strength in depth in which Arsenal have been deemed lacking and survey the striking options normally overshadowed by the iconic Henry.

After 45 minutes, Arsenal's need for French flair seemed desperate. After 90, with a different scoreline courtesy of his deputy, it seemed far less pressing. It was a transformation achieved with the same system, but a very different attitude and it provided a reminder that Arsenal's results without Henry are often respectable.

Their style of play differs, however. Deprived of Henry's elegant acceleration, the forward line comprised of just Emmanuel Adebayor, who invokes rather more comparisons with a former Arsenal forward than their current captain.

Because of their physical resemblance, mentions of Kanu are as inevitable as they are frequent, though they challenge the long-held suspicion that the Nigerian is a one-off. There is one significant difference, however: the Togolese is happy - indeed, at times it appears, happiest - as a lone striker. It can be attributed to the youth and mobility or a work ethic that belies a rather lackadaisical appearance.

Having excelled in splendid isolation in the victory at Manchester United and again in the draw at Chelsea, Henry's recuperative spell on the sidelines grants him an extended stint in attack. With Chris Kirkland untroubled in the first half, he seemed a malfunctioning forward line. A change of ends, but not personnel, invigorated Arsenal and Adebayor was to the fore in everything they created.

Providing a pivot in attack, his ability to involve his team-mates was evident in a deft pass for Freddie Ljungberg to angle a shot just wide. A second combination with the Swede resulted in a fine block from Chris Kirkland.

And between them Theo Walcott, nullified by the quietly impressive Leighton Baines in the first half, sped away to meet a perceptive ball from Julio Baptista. Rather than shoot, the teenager, granted just a third Premiership start, looked for Adebayor. The sliding Fitz Hall prevented him from turning it into an open goal.

If Walcott may be Henry's long-term successor, the current possessor of the No. 9 shirt appeared to start up front - or at least, he ambled around there for 20 seconds before reverting, without initial success, to midfield. Despite a prolific goalscoring record for Sevilla, however, Julio Baptista was confined to the centre of the pitch.

The Brazilian is nicknamed 'the Beast', a moniker that some of his team-mates seem altogether too delicate to have, but is yet to terrify opponents. Like Arsenal, however, he displayed greater purpose in the second half, drawing a fine stop from Kirkland and curling a free kick into the side netting.

A slighter midfielder crafted the winner. Cesc Fabregas emerged from the bench to provide the pass of the match. Adebayor took it in his lengthy stride, stroking the winner past the excellent Kirkland. 'He can give this kind of ball,' said Wenger of his substitute. Wigan were aggrieved about a challenge by Fabregas on Henri Camara beforehand but, with admirable honesty, Paul Jewell said: 'It wasn't a foul, it was a good tackle.'

'We should have got a 0-0,' added the Wigan manager. 'We've paid the ultimate price for concentration. We've been magnificent all night. When you're playing the best teams, you've got to concentrate for 95 minutes, if that's what it takes.'

Wenger's verdict was: 'It was a 1-0 game but you didn't know which side it would be for. Last year we lost many games like that 1-0. But we showed great spirit and great resilience. We are improving all the time. When you have humility and ambition linked, and talent as well, you always have a chance.'

As the Arsenal manager acknowledged, Wigan had plenty of opportunities themselves, and invariably they involved Camara. The Senegalese prodded wide from close range after a Kevin Kilbane shot had been deflected into his path.

Then, after the interval, he supplied Wigan's clearest chance with a perfectly weighted through ball that Emile Heskey, in the manner that has made him an unwanted reputation, failed to convert, a lame attempt at a chip being saved by Jens Lehmann. Finally, when the German goalkeeper parried a strong strike from Josip Skoko, Camara closed in on the rebound, before Kolo Toure came to Arsenal's rescue.

With Wenger's aversion to conventional centre forwards, the skilful Senegalese is the kind of player who fits the template for Arsenal. Instead it was another African who determined the game. If it's not quite a case of 'Thierry Who?', Arsenal can at least approach the Christmas fixture list with renewed confidence thanks to Emmanuel Adebayor.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Kolo Toure - An assured defensive display. The one time he got himself into trouble, he had the pace to recover. More often, Toure's reading of the game enabled him to cover for others.

ARSENAL VERDICT: In 15 minutes on the field, Cesc Fabregas showed he is already indispensable. But so, in a less flashy manner, are Toure, Gilberto Silva and Jens Lehmann. In many respects that trio, comprising the spine of the team along with Adebayor, earned the victory.

WIGAN VERDICT: Jewell was happy with the performance and two of the lesser lights among his summer signings may have pleased him most. Denny Landzaat advanced intelligently from midfield and Fitz Hall brought composure to an inexperienced defence. However, the costliest of his recruits, Heskey, may have cost them the points and Camara's display when alone in attack could suggest he is best deployed on the bench.

THAT'S RESPECT: On the teamsheet Arsenal submitted, only one member of the coaching staff is given his title: that's Mr Wenger to you.


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