By Chris Harris
Depleted, but still undefeated. Arsenal were without several first-team players at St Andrews on Saturday but still had enough in the tank to beat Birmingham 3-0 and reclaim top spot in the Premiership.
Goals from Freddie Ljungberg, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires made the difference. The Swede struck after just four minutes to give Arsenal the edge and Bergkamp and Pires struck late on to secure the points.
Arsenal now boast the best ever start to a Premiership season. They are unbeaten in 13 League games and gave Arsène Wenger plenty to smile about after his 400th game in charge.
His team won 4-0 here back in January but Birmingham have made great strides under Steve Bruce since then. As expected it was a much closer encounter for 80 minutes before Arsenal raced out of sight.
Thierry Henry, who completed a century of goals for the Gunners on his last visit here, claimed assists for all three goals and should have scored himself. However, his best efforts were thwarted by goalkeeper Maik Taylor.
Wenger had plenty of head-scratching to do as he prepared for the match. Injury, suspension or fatigue cost him the services of Lauren, Martin Keown, Patrick Vieira, Ray Parlour, Gilberto and Sylvain Wiltord, so a couple of less familiar names appeared on the Arsenal teamsheet.
Pascal Cygan was drafted into central defence for his first Premiership start of the season, with Kolo Toure shunted across to right-back.
Gael Clichy, who like Cygan played against Rotherham in the League Cup last month, plugged a gap on the left of midfield as Robert Pires started alongside Edu in the centre.
Dennis Bergkamp was the fourth and final change to the team which started Arsenal's last game against Tottenham a fortnight ago. The Dutch striker replaced Kanu, who spent the first hour on the bench.
Birmingham's supporters greeted the players with their customary cacophony of sound, but not before both sets of fans had acknowledged England's World Cup-winning rugby team with a rendition of 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot'.
Arsenal's makeshift line-up asserted themselves from the off, and it wasn't long before Ljungberg had matched Jonny Wilkinson's coolness under pressure with a clinical finish after just four minutes.
Bergkamp dispossessed Kenny Cunningham and found Henry on the edge of the box. He slipped a cute pass through to Ljungberg and the Swedish midfielder beat Taylor with consummate ease.
Wenger couldn't have wished for a better start, and any fears over Cygan and Clichy were soon allayed as both settled quickly.
Cygan set the tone for a commanding performance with a crunching challenge on Mikael Forssell inside the opening 20 seconds and Clichy calmed any nerves with some neat early touches as he linked up with Ashley Cole on the left.
Arsenal continued to show plenty of panache in the opening exchanges and could have doubled their advantage. After 10 minutes, Cole fired in a cross which eventually fell for Henry. He kept possession under pressure and teed the ball up for Bergkamp, but the Dutchman sliced his attempted volley.
A minute later Henry went close. The French striker made a marauding run through the Blues defence from left to right and found space for a shot, but his effort went straight at Taylor.
After that, Arsenal made promising inroads into their opponents' half but struggled to carve out any clear-cut chances before the break. Kolo Toure typified this with a dashing run down the right but a woeful cross which was easily cleared.
Toure had plenty to do at the other end as Birmingham finally clawed their way into the game. They piled the pressure on Arsenal's back four and Stan Lazaridis twice went close to an equaliser.
The Australian winger, seeking solace after his country's World Cup final defeat, flicked David Dunn's clever cross just the wrong side of the near post and then forced Jens Lehmann into a low save.
At the other end, Bergkamp sought out Ljungberg after the Swede had made another well-timed run, but Jamie Clapham raced back to clear the danger.
As ever, Arsenal looked dangerous on the counter-attack and Birmingham were almost caught cold at the start of the second half as they were at the start of the first.
Henry, so lethal on the break, surged down the left channel just three minutes after the restart. As he homed in on goal you would have put your mortgage on him scoring, but Taylor somehow got a fingertip on Henry's low shot.
From the resulting corner, Taylor almost undid all his good work with a fumble but he recovered quicky as Sol Campbell challenged.
Taylor was back in action just before the hour mark as Henry crossed from the left. This time Cunningham, who had been caught out for the goal, saw his effort to clear head toward the bottom corner but Taylor came to his rescue.
While Arsenal threatened sporadically, Birmingham enjoyed plenty of possession and peppered the visitors with dangerous crosses. Forssell had a header ruled out but, otherwise, Campbell, Cygan and company stood firm.
With 10 minutes to go the Gunners were bracing themselves for an anxious finale but they were spared that inconvenience by Bergkamp, who did what Arsenal had threatened to do so often by scoring on the break.
Henry was the architect, receiving the ball inside his own half and releasing Bergkamp. The Dutchman raced in on goal and produced a sumptuous finish, lifting the ball calmly over Taylor.
Birmingham refused to buckle and Upson headed just over the bar after yet another cross was floated into the Arsenal box. But their resistance was finally ended by Pires, who glided into the box to beat Taylor from close range.
|Toure takes on Lazaridis||Henry races past Clemence|
|Dennis Bergkamp makes it 2-0||Our Dutchman celebrates his first goal of the season|
|Robert makes it 3-0 in the final minutes||Pires celebrates his strike|
© Arsenal Broadband Limited 2004