Arsenal 1 Manchester City 0

Penalty, you're having a laugh: Henry and Pires in comedy spot
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The Independent Football

The French pair were left scratching their heads, and later their manager, Arsène Wenger, concurred straight-faced: "They made a mess of it." However, his insouciant addendum: "Even when you've been in football a long time, there will always be surprises when you think you've seen everything. That's why it's an interesting game," must be accepted with scepticism.

One suspects that he would not have been quite so forgiving had his team not been a goal ahead at the time of that 78th- minute incident, the result of an earlier successful spot-kick by Robert Pires, an advantage which they maintained, and which hoisted them to seventh place, by dint only of an assistant flagging a City equaliser offside.

Most departed here yesterday utterly bemused by what had taken place. The farce was instigated by a clumsy challenge from Joey Barton on Dennis Bergkamp in the area. The referee, Mike Riley, pointed to the spot, and Pires deliberated with Thierry Henry before starting his run-up. When he reached the ball he stopped and stumbled over it, just catching it with his studs. It rolled no more than a few inches. As a City player hacked the ball away, Riley awarded a free-kick to the visitors, as he explained later, because he had adjudged that Pires had played the ball twice.

The Arsenal midfielder explained later that it had been a deliberate ploy of setting up the ball for Henry to score that had turned into a Highbury howler. "We practised this two days ago in training," he said. "It was Thierry's idea and it went very well. At the time, though, I didn't really want to do it. I didn't think it was the place. I regret it and have apologised to the manager, and I apologise to the fans." Henry admitted: "It's my fault. I'm to blame. But it's not my fault that Robert had a numb leg. But I'll be taking the penalties from now on."

Wenger himself was clearly taken aback: "Thierry could have taken it, but he felt exhausted," he said. "I don't understand why Lauren didn't take it." So, had he been annoyed by what he witnessed? "Of course, but I would have been much more annoyed if we had not got the three points. But now he's [Pires] been vaccinated for the rest of his life."

And all this on the manager's 56th birthday, when his most welcome gift would have been the signature of Henry on an extended contract. That was not to be, and will not be until next summer. Yet, there was no doubting the influence Henry continues to have on this club.

There had been an emotional ceremony beforehand with Ian Wright, the former holder of Arsenal's all-time goalscoring record, presenting a silver cannon to Henry in celebration of the Frenchman equalling and then passing that total of 185 against Sparta Prague on Tuesday. Henry was returning to Premiership action after nearly two months' absence. The fact that after his tally of five, the next leading Arsenal goalscorers are Sol Campbell and Pascal Cygan with two apiece, helps explain their malaise. Here, before, the interval, for all the home side's intricate build-up play, with Mathieu Flamini and Cesc Fabregas busy in midfield, there was little to trouble the goalkeeper, David James.

Henry was involved in the home side's best early opening, sliding the ball back from the goal-line after being released by Lauren, only for Pires to sky the ball over the bar. City, principally on the back foot, responded with decent attempts from Kiki Musampa.

In the 61st minute, the breakthrough. Kolo Touré swept a beautiful ball in the path of Henry, James dashed out and dived at his feet, and though the former England man got a hand to the ball he also caught the striker.

Riley awarded the spot-kick, which Pires converted, but not before City players had rounded on Henry, accusing him of cheating. Certainly, he was looking for the award, but it was hard to dispute Riley's decision.

Ten minutes from time, Barton's cross was headed past Jens Lehmann by Darius Vassell, only for City's delight to turn to fury when they caught sight of an assistant's raised flag. A TV replay showed it was a very tight decision. On this strangest afternoon, this simply was not their day.