Arsenal 2 Cardiff City 1: Pires party helps Wenger celebrate Henry's pledge

Frenchman at the double as Arsenal play loyalty card
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The Independent Online

The only Cup shock for Arsenal was provided over the breakfast table after Arsène Wenger woke to read the pre-match, public declarations of Thierry Henry that he wanted to stay.

"He surprised me as well," admitted the Arsenal manager, who has spent much of the season, and much of Friday, fire-fighting the apparently relentless tide of information pointing towards his captain departing for Barcelona.

It probably did not help that Wenger only found out Henry was not leaving - or wants to discuss a new contract, at least - through a piece in The Sun newspaper for which he was paid. There was not a word in the match programme.

Wenger brushed that aside by adding: "The biggest part was him deciding to stay." However, he admitted that the board still had to stump up the cash to secure the deal. "The ball is in our court. We will try to spend the money we can."

With Henry, Wenger feels that Arsenal can become "the best club in the world". "I'm confident we can do it," he added, explaining that he is always hopeful of holding on to his best players. "Not for my beautiful eyes," Wenger said, "but for the fact that they love the club, the way we play and behave on a daily basis, the ambition we have and the success we have".

Crucially, Wenger said that he believed Henry's declaration will banish the "negative vibe" he has detected at the club since the season started, and which he blamed on Patrick Vieira's departure and poor Premiership form.

Henry was one of several first-team players rested, and sat sipping tea in one of the executive boxes. Still, Wenger deployed a strong side who appeared to be set on the most comfortable of victories after two clinical goals by Robert Pires inside the first 20 minutes. But a late reply by the highly rated, but disappointing, Cameron Jerome meant Wenger spent an anxious final few moments.

Had the 19-year-old Cardiff striker been less careless inside the first 30 seconds it could have been even more unsettling for the holders. Instead, he lifted a clear chance over the crossbar.

That followed a slip by Philippe Senderos, and the Swiss defender endured a miserable afternoon. He was fortunate not to be dismissed, following a rash challenge when already booked, or concede a penalty, when he raised his hands to block Jeff Whitley's shot. Indeed, the callowness of Arsenal's defence was a problem throughout.

Jerome's goal was reward for Cardiff's vociferous, 6,500-strong support, though one of their fans ran on to the pitch late on to push the Arsenal goalkeeper, Manuel Almunia, before being bundled away by slow-to-react stewards. The Spaniard also appeared to be struck by an object thrown from the crowd. The Championship club may face sanctions.

Cardiff were missing four regulars, with the absence of Jason Koumas, on loan from West Bromwich Albion, who refused him permission to play, most keenly felt. It meant they lacked a touch of guile - a quality that Arsenal showed when they eased into the lead.

A smooth sequence of passes was given impetus when Dennis Bergkamp stabbed the ball to Jose Antonio Reyes, who flicked a pass inside Glenn Loovens for Pires to shoot left-footed across Neil Alexander. A dozen minutes later Robin van Persie broke and delayed a pass to Bergkamp, who waited for Pires to arrive before slipping the ball to the Frenchman, whose swift shot again beat Alexander.

Van Persie twisted his body to reach Pires's corner only for his header to thud off the bar. But then Arsenal began to struggle. Cardiff found belief, stirred by the clever play of Neal Ardley, and Whitley forced Almunia into a fine, one-handed save from his volley before, with four minutes left, Jerome bundled the rebound from Darren Purse's header just over the line. It proved too late to spoil Wenger's unexpected day.

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