By Richard Clarke
Arsenal are now nine points clear at the top of the Premiership after a narrow 2-1 victory over Charlton on Saturday at Highbury.
Arsène Wenger's side scored both their goals in the opening four minutes and went on to dominate the first half.
But the visitors rallied and replied just before the hour with Claus Jensen's free-kick. It set up a tense finale and Jonathan Johansson cracked the post in injury time with an overhead kick. But Arsenal deservedly held on.
This victory, coupled with Manchester United's draw at Fulham, means Arsenal now have a nine-point advantage over Sir Alex Ferguson's men. Chelsea are now second on goal difference after beating Manchester City 1-0 at the City of Manchester Stadium.
Before kick-off, Ashley Cole and Dennis Bergkamp were restored to the starting line-up after missing Tuesday's 3-2 victory at Celta Vigo.
Edu, scorer of two goals in Spain, retained his place alongside Patrick Vieira so the fit-again Gilberto began on the bench.
At the start of play, Arsenal were seven points clear at the top of the table but Charlton began the day just four places lower and within striking distance of Champions League qualification. Their main change was Jon Fortune for the suspended Chris Perry.
Yet again, they are having an impressive season and had barely been out of the top six since November. But this afternoon they were 2-0 behind within four minutes.
The first came when Freddie Ljungberg collected the ball on the right and fed a simple pass to Henry. He waited for the Swede to shuffle into the area, then weighted his pass for his team-mate to run onto. Ljungberg fed the ball across the face of the area where Luke Young just pipped Robert Pires to turn the ball home.
The Arsenal midfielder swung at it but, in this observer's eyes, the last touch was from the Charlton defender. Both the ball and Young ended up in the net. If it does go down as Pires' goal it will be his 50th for Arsenal.
Virtually straight from the kick-off, it was 2-0. Vieira found space on the left and crossed for Henry, who was standing on the penalty spot. The French striker took a touch then fired home his 20th Premiership goal if the season and his 25th in all competitions.
Those two early strikes were obvious in Arsenal's game for the next half-hour. The same can be said of Charlton.
Henry and Cole were working well together on the left-hand side, Edu tried his luck with a couple of pot-shots and Ljungberg cut inside before seeing a rising effort tipped over by Kiely.
The Charlton defence was creaking and it took until midway through the half for them to register their first effort at the other end when Paolo Di Canio saw an effort drift just wide.
Jensen also floated a long-range shot over Jens Lehmann's bar just after the half-hour but, in reality the tide was still with Arsenal.
Two minutes before the break, Pires poked a ball to Henry, who flicked the ball around his defender before firing into Kiely's chest. At that point, a third would not have been flattering.
However, Charlton began the second half with much more intent. They had already put the Arsenal goal under pressure before Jensen fired home a free-kick in the 59th minute.
Lauren was adjudged to have fouled Di Canio just outside the D of the Arsenal area and the former Bolton midfielder stepped up to curl home his shot off the post with Lehmann left standing.
The goal brought the right response from Arsenal and, in the minutes that followed they might have restored and extended their lead.
First Kiely thrust out a leg to block Henry's shot after the French striker had been released by Pires' rapier pass. Then Vieira rose highest to meet Ljungberg's free-kick. It was a perfect English centre-forward's header ? angled downwards and with power. The only problem was that it was directed the wrong side of the post.
The goal restored the urgency Arsenal had display at the start of the first half. As snow began to float down, Wenger's men upped their game and Henry's cross clipped the top of the bar.
With 17 minutes left Wenger made his changes - Bergkamp and Ljungberg off for Jose Antonio Reyes and Gilberto.
However, two minutes later, Charlton's Graham Stuart should have equalised. Carlton Cole tricked his way past his marker and whipped over a cross. It was too tall for Lehmann but the Addicks' midfielder rose to meet it at the far post. But, with the goal at his mercy he nodded the ball from whence it came.
Reyes looked lively and nearly fired a killer third just in the dying minutes.
Injury time was anxious and Johansson fired an overhead kick against the upright. The ball bounced into the area and was cleared. Highbury sighed with relief, as it did soon afterwards when the whistle went.
|Dean Kiely is powerless to stop Robert Pires...||... as he strokes home his 50th goal for Arsenal|
|Charlton's defence try to stop Thierry Henry...||... but his shot evades them all and it's 2-0.|
|Dennis Bergkamp leaps the prone Dean Kiely||Hermann Hreidarsson blocks Henry's shot|
|Arsenal show their togetherness after scoring|
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|Sol Campbell stays strong against Claus Jensen|
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