Sub David Bentley shines in debut against Oxford

By Myles Palmer

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Arsenal 2 Oxford 0

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A guest report by Ben Joseph

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By five o’clock it will all be over…Our vision of a treble, or Oxford’s dream of a giant-killing day.

As Tony Adams unkindly reminds us in an advert on Sky, Arsenal have been knocked out of the FA cup early on, and undoubtedly will be again.

That’s why I am looking forward to today’s match. Forget the language of some promoters.

Romance? Nah, this should be a battle.

For Oxford today it is their Cup Final, and for some of the Arsenal youth players who are selected, this is their window of opportunity.

For Francis Jeffers, perhaps just a shop window?

As I meet Toby and Sammy’s bunch for a Guinness outside the 12 Pins, the talk is simply of goals, how many and by whom.

These ties can look easy. One lad I talk with predicts a goal fest. But he is the same boy who saw the sun shining in the morning and has decided to wear no more than a t-shirt to today’s game. It may be sunny, but it’s bloody freezing.

Appearances can be deceptive, and he may be in for a shock.

A few groans and half-cheers from inside the pub let us know that Man U are being troubled by Portsmouth.

A reminder, if you need one, that there may could be a shock somewhere in this FA Cup 3rd round.

Today’s game is at Highbury and the chances of an upset here are slim.

My hope is for an Oxford team who will fight till the end and keep us entertained, whilst Arsenal’s dazzling youth tempt us to rashly predict that Arsene has smuggled in the new Zidane from some distant war-torn country.

As the game kicks off I am immediately dismayed to see that Louis is not playing for Oxford.

A player I saw briefly in the previous round who showed attitude and determination. And judging by some of the column inches his pre-match quotes gained in the tabloids – he was well up for this one…

From this point on I was disappointed. Perhaps my hopes were too high.

The match was dreary.

There was no battle from Oxford, simply organised damage limitation, and whilst the boys in red played well, we were only just entertained.

Thierry had been rested with a tight hamstring.

I doubt he would have been up for today’s match anyway, he is hardly the player to rise to these sort of occasions and perhaps would have resorted to swaggering around the park for an hour or so.

Always optimistic,and sometimes naive,I was looking forward to Jeffers scoring hat-trick.That would be worth a few million squid on the transfer market.

Jeffers did all but score today, and score he should have done – the chances were there.

Instead he impressed with his deeper positional play. He looked fantastic on the edge of the box, holding the ball up well, turning with or without the ball, then losing his marker, little flicks and chests of the ball through gaps.

This was how he made the first goal.

Jeffers collected a thoughtful pass from Oleg, that Svard had had done well to dummy on the right side of the penalty area.

Jeffers turned and took the ball away from the Oxford goal, allowing Bergkamp the time to arrive in the box and pick up the clever through ball which he lifted into the roof of the net.

Bang! Dennis has now scored 100 goals for Arsenal!

Well done, Dennis. Let us take this opportunity to thank you now for all the pleasure you have given Gooners.

And let’s thank Bruce Rioch for the only thing he did right during his short Highbury spell, making the purchase of this fantastically entertaining footballer.

Watching the replay, the goal reversed the roles we had expected from Jeffers and Bergkamp.

Dennis had been loitering outside the area and timed his run into the box to perfection.For an important moment, the playmaker became the fox in the box.

Oxford are an organised outfit and continued to defend reasonably well.

Lines of four or five shirts persistently stood between Arsenal and the opposition goal.

But whilst Upson and co tried to lure Oxford up the pitch, they would not budge.

Either it was a lack of belief, or a determination not to become caught out by an Arsenal counter-attack.

Oxford were not closing down the Arsenal players, not putting them under pressure whilst on the ball.

To this extent, for the rest of the first half, and probably until Louis came on, Arsenal attempted to thread passes through the eye of a needle, but in vein.

A wide attack was of course an option for the Red shirts and Oleg successfully probed the right hand flank, managing to create spaces on occasions for Jeffers and Toure to exploit.

But Gio was far less ambitious in this department.

Unlike Cole there were too few occasions when Gio took the ball towards the corner, from where he might have delivered dangerous crosses a la Cole, or at worst drawn a few defenders out of position.

Instead we were left watching Gio’s fine passes into the edge of the box that Dennis or Jeffers could collect and work with.

But every time they turned around to attack the goal a gang of Oxford players would be in their way.

Only one Frenchman on the pitch for the majority of today and he looked a tad lonely, drifting in and out of position before settling into a more constructive roaming role.

At his best Pires was able to come inside and attack the Oxford defence through the middle of the park, at one point sending Bergkamp through, with a delightfully weighted pass that was a tad too wide of goal.

However, Pires is not only not back to his best, he is not playing well and is responding badly to pressure.

When on the ball and he is being closed down he is giving the ball away cheaply, perhaps panicking, as he fears getting whacked by a tackle. Off the ball, forget 50-50s, Bobby’s pulling out of 60-40s.

He is ducking out of physical confrontation, and this is not helping last year’s “player of the season” settle back into the swing of things.

I remember when we bought him :he was a wimp.

Rumour was that Arsene set Keown and Adams loose on him in training. It worked wonders and Pires grew massively in confidence.

Let’s hope Arsene lets Keown and perhaps Cole have the chance to give him a bit of roughing up now.

Remind Bobby that he is not made of glass but is a physically strong world class footballer.

Bobby’s roaming role was well supported by Svard and Edu.

Svard was subtle and akin to Gilberto in more than just playing style. He never gave us a panicky moment.

Alongside him Edu tidied up very well.

When given the opportunity he drove the ball forward through his charging runs or lovely long passes, including one that set Jeffers up for the opportunity to chip home but Franny overhit it.

Louis was brought on to give Oxford some vigour and belief mid way through the second half, and immediately the Oxford team began to chase and close down red shirts. Sadly this did not last for long. They soon gave up running after shadows and again resorted to damage limitation.

Arsenal’s second goal was hardly worth the mention.

As usual corners were frequent, but ineffective. After a clash of heads in the penalty area, McNiven knocked home for Arsenal – own goal.

The best moments of the match came after Arsene brought on the young David Bentley.

As I discussed his whacky haircut with my brother, I suddenly realised that the kid was an entertainer.

And his audacity and skill certainly provided some of the bored fans with an opportunity to confidently profess that they already knew Bentley would be the perfect replacement for Bergkamp…

Two ‘stepovers’, a sharp turn, Oxford players left for dead, and before we knew it Bentley was floating a lovely cross into the box – Vrroooom!

And his precociousness did not stop there. Some more audacious turns and a great pass set up a Wiltord / Pires attack. But the two World Cup winners let the lad down.

“There’s only one David Bentley!” sang the North Bank.

He turned and thanked them. Cheeky too.

So that was that.

Dennis’ 100th goal, Pires still not looking too hot, Jeffers more Bergkamp than fox – and a sparkling debut by David Bentley.

Will we see him again, Arsene?

Final word :boo to Oxford for not battling. You let all the fans down. You got the big draw but you did not perform under the spotlight.

This is the FA Cup, lose 1-0 or 5-0, you’re still out, at least have a go!

5th January 2003.