Football: Henry fills breach for Arsenal

Southampton 0 Arsenal 1
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The Independent Online
THE PREMIERSHIP is beginning to look as if it might be won this season by default. Since the leading candidates all gave evidence this weekend that the dual demands of domestic and European competition might be beyond them, it could be worth having a bet on an outsider, say Aston Villa or Liverpool. Then again, perhaps not.

So it is back to the Big Three (remember how it used to be the Big Five?) and if it does come down to attritional qualities, you could do worse than back the Gunners. This was arguably their poorest performance of the season - certainly their worst opening 45 minutes - and yet they still managed to eke out a victory. But what they have in reserve in attack could make all the difference when the going gets even tougher, as it undoubtedly will.

No other team in the Premiership could rival the quality of the forwards whom Arsenal had on the bench on Saturday. Hence, it seemed positively unfair on poor Southampton, who, having battled their hearts out for 71 minutes, suddenly found themselves facing the lithesome figure of Thierry Henry, substitute for Kanu. It was akin to bringing on Linford Christie to run the last 200 metres of someone else's marathon.

Needless to say, Saints were unable to live with him and in the space of 15 minutes he could and should have had a hat-trick. Fortunately for Arsenal, one goal from the French winger - his first for the club - was enough. Arsene Wenger conceded that he needed it after coming on against Leicester and missing three goals in about the same space of time in that game, too. "That was a terrible blow to him and this goal will be a big boost," said the Arsenal manager.

As long as he can hurt the opposition with his pace, as he did at The Dell, the pounds 9m it cost to bring him from Juventus may yet prove to be money well spent. Wenger doesn't buy many duds. Besides, with Davor Suker in reserve, too, there is the promise of goals aplenty in this Arsenal side, even if Saturday saw a return to the familiar "One-nil to the Arsenal".

Perhaps of greater concern to Wenger will have been the durability of his defence. It sounds churlish to criticise Arsenal's fabled back four at the best of times, and all the more so after keeping their goal intact, not only against the Saints, but also, of course, Gabriel Batistuta and co, in Florence last week. But one could definitely hear it creaking in the first half on Saturday, and Wenger may find that he has to rotate his defenders, notably in the wide positions, even more often than he thought likely at the start of the season.

It will be of concern to Wenger, also, that his team made such hard work of it against Southampton. The sight of visitors struggling at The Dell, of course, is not a new phenomenon, but it was for Arsenal, who have now won three and draw two in their last five visits, conceding just one goal in the process. History apart, Southampton are not a good side. Dave Jones, their manager, has every right to take as much heart as he possibly can from their start, which has seen them take eight points more than the corresponding one last season. That said, their three wins have all come against teams in the bottom four, and when they came up against quality opposition, namely Leeds at home, they were soundly trounced 3-0.

They looked for all the world to be heading for another beating at the start of Saturday's game when Arsenal were so superior in technique and all-round ability that they seemed to be in a different league, which, of course, they are in a manner of speaking. Then they suddenly wilted for some reason. The fact that Dennis Bergkamp, "fresh" from his 1,800- mile car journey to Italy, looked more lively than most dispelled the idea of travel fatigue and Wenger himself felt their listlessness was more mental than physical.

As a consequence, Southampton could have had three or four goals before Henry scored with only Arsenal's second shot on target of the game. But what a goal it was, struck on the turn with his back to the goal from 20 yards out. Eat your hearts out, Man Utd and Chelsea.

Goal: Henry (78) 0-1.

Southampton (4-4-2): Jones; Dodds, Lundekvam (Almeida, 71), Richards, Benali; Kachloul, Soltvedt, Oakley, Bridge (Le Tissier, 81); Beattie, Hughes. Substitutes not used: Colleter, Marsden, Moss (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Ljungberg (Parlour, h/t), Vieira, Grimandi, Overmars (Luzhny, 84); Kanu (Henry, 71), Bergkamp. Substitutes not used: Suker, Lukic (gk).

Referee: G Barber (Tring).

Bookings: Southampton: Beattie, Oakley, Dodd. Arsenal: Winterburn, Grimandi.

Man of the match: Richards.

Attendance: 15,242.