Blackburn Rovers 0 Arsenal 2: Wenger enjoys the rites of north-west passage  

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The Independent Football

With the exception of one breakable Brazilian, Arsenal were so composed at Ewood Park that they all appeared to have joined Thierry Henry on his winter sabbatical to refresh mind, body and soul. Eleven minutes remained of their latest therapeutic expedition when the visiting directors resembled a well-heeled conga as they skipped for the exits. Afterwards Henry disintegrated into hysterics during a live TV interview and his manager, Arsène Wenger, dismissed the potential loss of his central midfield against Manchester United with a diplomacy that honoured Blackburn's special guest, the President of Malta, Dr Lawrence Gonzi.

Their last away examination of 2006 had brought accusations of cowardice and lack of commitment at Bramall Lane. This year has begun with three compelling away wins in three competitions in a week - all in that previously foreboding citadel known as north-west England. Where are those babies now?

"When they announced there would be rain at 5.15pm I thought, 'OK, that is specially for us'," the Arsenal manager said, relaxing against an Ewood Park wall as opposed to being pressed up against one following a 1-0 defeat here last season. "But we have responded well since the Sheffield United game. That was an accident and since mid-November the team has taken off. This has been a very satisfying week, because even though we've had a different team in three competitions we have reproduced the quality and spirit. We're proud of that."

Wenger was sufficiently enthused by his side's clinical response to the 13th-minute dismissal of Gilberto Silva - a centre-forward's header from the central defender Kolo Touré and the latest majestic strike from Henry - which sealed a spirited rise to fourth place, that he confessed his players "were not as committed in some away games at the beginning of the season".

For any manager at any level that is an unpalatable admission, but the Arsenal manager's indulgence is being repaid in the increasing maturity of Justin Hoyte, Philippe Senderos, the outstanding Gaël Clichy and the underbelly that dismantled Liverpool at Anfield in the Carling Cup.

The same applies to Cesc Fabregas too, but then the 19-year-old has excelled for so long he is now in the rare bracket of a teenager who is taken for granted. "They will be even tougher at 23," reasoned their tutor. Whatever their age, they are likely to possess more inner steel than Robbie Savage showed on Saturday.

Dr Gonzi must have felt at home with the subterfuge and spin that surrounded the early red card for Gilberto, as Savage and the Blackburn manager, Mark Hughes, sought to defend the midfielder's part in the Brazilian's ridiculous departure when no defence was acceptable and Wenger digested the resultant three-match suspension with minimal complaint.

By the letter of the law the referee, Rob Styles, had no choice but to dismiss Gilberto for kicking out at Savage following two niggling fouls from behind, but by those stringent standards the Welsh international also flirted with a second yellow card when he responded with a pathetic dive to the floor. Perhaps it was a replay that prompted Henry's giggles later on.

To his credit, Savage faced the press afterwards and also appealed against Gilberto's sending-off, although you could almost hear the bolts slamming across the stable door as he did so. The Rovers midfielder claimed: "I asked the referee not to send him off but he said, 'If he kicks out at you, he has to go'. I thought it was a yellow card at best and it shouldn't have been anything for me.

"I don't want to see other players being sent off. I have gone past all those old days of feigning injury and I said he shouldn't send him off, so I have nothing to regret. I can't believe some of them said I should have been sent off. I challenged him and, although he touched the ball with his hand, there was no whistle so I carried on playing. I was shocked when I saw the red card."

Not for the first time, 10 men flourished on indignation and Blackburn, to Hughes' annoyance after four straight victories, produced a chaotic response that contained three glaring misses.

Touré powered a header from Henry's free-kick in off the post and then, 19 minutes from time, the Arsenal captain set off along the touchline, exchanged perfectly weighted passes with Fabregas and swept a sensational shot into the top corner. Wenger, despite a foul from Tugay that left his Spanish midfielder with an ice pack on his right foot and a doubt for Sunday's visit of United, departed with a presidential air.

Goals: Touré (37) 0-1; Henry (71) 0-2.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Ooijer (Nonda, 59), Henchoz, Khizanishvili, Neill; Emerton, Mokoena (Tugay, h-t), Savage, Pedersen; McCarthy, Derbyshire. Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), McEveley, Peter.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Hoyte, Touré, Senderos, Clichy; Hleb, Fabregas (Djourou, 90), Gilberto, Rosicky; Van Persie (Flamini, 69), Henry (Adebayor, 80). Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Baptista.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire)

Booked: Blackburn Savage, Mokoena, Neill, Tugay.

Sent off: Gilberto (13).

Man of the match: Henry.

Attendance: 21,852.

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