By Richard Clarke
There was a wonderful symmetry to this determined, deserved victory at Blackburn Rovers.
The last time Arsenal visited Ewood Park, two days shy of a year ago, they were well-beaten 2-0. It was the start of spell that saw them lose their grip on a Premiership trophy that had seemed to be theirs for the taking.
Today, it was the same sort of game - tough and tight - but they won 2-0. The goals came courtesy of Thierry Henry and Robert Pires and the victory leaves Arsène Wenger's side nine points clear with 10 games left.
Just to add to the symmetry. Henry's goal was his 30th in all competitions and it helped Arsenal to their 30th Premiership game without defeat.
Before kick-off, the manager had said he would only rotate "one or two" as his side got back to the bread-and-butter of the Premiership after indulging in European fare during midweek. In the end, injuries to Dennis Bergkamp (rib) and Freddie Ljungberg (abdominal strain) meant he drafted in Jose Antonio Reyes and Gilberto.
The Rovers' crowd obviously remembered last year's game and roared their team forward early on. Their side were snapping at the heels of Arsenal in the opening minutes and forced a couple of corners. Though the only time they truly threatened was when Craig Short saw a header nodded off the line by Ashley Cole.
In the 14th minute, Patrick Vieira fed Pires running into the left-hand channel of the area. The midfielder dallied and lost the ball in trying to cut it back for a team-mate but at least it showed the visitors were moving into gear.
Five minutes later Reyes miscontrolled just outside the area, Gilberto flicked the ball on and Henry collected before stinging the hands of Freidel from 12-yards. The French striker then tried a quick free-kick, a la Aston Villa.
Henry was obviously in one of his cheeky moods this afternoon. In the 26th minute he closed down Freidel as he was about to fly-kick clear, poked out a leg to win the ball and then tapped it into the empty net. The top-scorer started celebrate yet another goal but referee Wiley gave Rovers a free-kick.
Arsenal were now cranking up the pace. Pires and Reyes both fired over with worthy efforts around the half hour as their confidence grew.
Shortly before the break, Andrew Cole escaped on the right and fired low towards the near post. Jens Lehmann snaffled the chance at the second attempt.
But as time ticked away, Arsenal still seemed the side more likely and Henry fired over the bar just before the whistle.
It was more of the same after the interval. Arsenal setting the tempo, Rovers on the backfoot but still industrious.
Then Henry struck.
Ashley Cole controlled a difficult high ball just inside the Rovers half and fed the Frenchman as he galloped through. Henry was bundled over just outside the area as he tried to find Reyes to his right.
He took the free-kick right-footed and bent it over the wall and between Friedel's outstretched hand and the near post. A superb way to reach 30 goals for the season in all competitions.
Rovers rallied. Dwight Yorke came on for Matt Jansen to be re-united with Andrew Cole, his old Manchester United sparring partner. They started to push Arsenal back once more but, with the luxury of that goal, Wenger's men let the ball to the work. They reverted to the superior form of keep-ball. That type of game that brings 'ol?s' from their fans.
Three minutes from time, Gilberto bobbled a shot against the post and it bounced out for Pires to hook home his 10th Premiership goal of the season.
Job done and still nine points clear.
|Henry takes the free-kick...||..it's over the wall..|
|..and in!||Robert pounces on the rebound off the post.|
|and strokes it in.||The team celebrate our scorer|
|Cole congratulates Henry on his goal|
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|The team celebrate our opening goal|
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