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Dec 16, 2009

Vintage Claret sees off Gunners

If Burnley's promotion and subsequent success is among of the least likely tales of 2009, one man's ascent from the lower leagues is more improbable than most. Graham Alexander turned 38 a couple of months ago. He had completed 900 games for club and country before he appeared in the top flight but, at an age when others are not so much contemplating retirement as enjoying it, his career has reached a belated peak.

And Wednesday night, perhaps, represented the summit. Just as two other vintage Clarets, Brian Jensen and Robbie Blake, combined to defeat Manchester United, the oldest of them all frustrated Arsenal. Burnley's thirty-somethings are having their say in the title race.

Alexander's equaliser brought a personal landmark - 100 league goals, completed almost two decades after his first - and preserved Burnley's excellent home record. Like many of the previous 99, it was a penalty, awarded when Thomas Vermaelen sent Andre Bikey spiralling into the air and converted with typical calm.

His is a no-frills approach - blast it, sometimes down the middle but invariably with sufficient elevation that it is unlikely to be saved - but it is an undeniably effective one.

Alexander may be the modern-day Matt Le Tissier, but he is not selected for his penalty prowess alone. Despite an end-of-career shift into midfield, he would not be able to play at such an advanced age without the ability to pass the ball.

"Anybody lower down the leagues must look at Graham Alexander, at 38, having never played in the Premier League, and see that opportunity can come," manager Owen Coyle said. "He has been brilliant for me, outstanding, and he sets a fantastic example for our football club."

Whereas Wolves had fielded their reserves against Manchester United 24 hours earlier, Burnley approached their encounter with another member of the elite rather more positively. "Being the optimist I am, I always feel I can win every game," Coyle said.

Indeed, an attacking ethos, shared by the two managers, produced a terrific game. It is widely presumed to be a sign of madness to take Arsenal on at their own game. Burnley, however, have spent the season being accused of naivety and Coyle and Arsene Wenger are equally unwavering in their beliefs.

When Andrey Arshavin, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas formed a trinity of classy creators, each equally adept at the precise pass, Burnley appeared outclassed. Instead, the trio of Alexander, Bikey and Kevin McDonald exerted an increasing influence in midfield and ensured they weren't out-passed.

Indeed, after Alexander's equaliser, Burnley came closer to a winner. Chris Eagles evaded Mikael Silvestre and Nasri before rifling a shot against the post and Steven Fletcher had a goal disallowed for offside.

Perhaps the officials spared them defeat but it was two points dropped for Arsenal, undoing much of the good work accomplished at Anfield. Much of their spark departed with Fabregas, whose contribution was curtailed just before half-time. Before then, he had been irresistible. If his reputation was forged by passing, his goal was created by tackling.

He harried Bikey, who was slow to react to the danger, before neatly nutmegging Clarke Carlisle and drilling the ball past Jensen. The unfortunate Carlisle was deftly deceived for a second time by the Arsenal captain when he lofted the ball over the defender before shooting into the side-netting. Then Arshavin struck the post and Burnley could have been three goals adrift after a quarter of an hour.

"At 1-0 up, it became a little bit easy and at 1-1 we understood it was a cup game," Wenger said. "We were a bit jaded physically and we lacked a bit of sharpness in the final third."

They did so especially in the second half. For all the precocious talents at Wenger's disposal, most sides suffer when their dominant figures are missing. The substitution of Fabregas compounded the absence of Robin van Persie and left too great an onus on Arshavin to create. He almost responded and Jensen was busied by a series of shots.

Yet while Wenger introduced a teenager, Aaron Ramsey, he was thwarted by a man old enough to be the Welshman's father. The Arsenal boss habitually pensions off players in second half of their careers. His pursuit of the title was hindered by a player in his 771st league game. Only eight players have appeared more in the history of English league football than Graham Alexander. Few have taken a penalty better, either.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Kevin McDonald - Fabregas was fantastic when he was on the pitch, but Burnley's Scottish midfielder impressed throughout. Energetic and effective, his passing was composed. His cross preceded Fletcher's disallowed goal, a decision that appeared marginal.

BURNLEY VERDICT: No wonder, on this evidence, why Mick McCarthy rested ten Wolves players ahead of Sunday's meeting with Burnley. There were excellent performances all over the pitch, with Stephen Jordan keeping Walcott quiet, Bikey recovering from his early error to prove a forceful presence in midfield and Eagles offering skill in abundance on either wing. With 19 points, Burnley are halfway to safety.

ARSENAL VERDICT: A wasteful display by Walcott was one disappointment and the winger was the least effective of Arsenal's attacking players. Eduardo was introduced for the closing stages to give them a specialist striker, but he looked off the pace and they ended, uncharacteristically, with William Gallas operating as an auxiliary forward.

NO JOY FOR CESC: Fabregas has a hamstring injury and will definitely miss Saturday's game against Hull.

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