Henry and Vieira confirm Arsenal's place in pantheon

From the Invincibles to the Immortals

Arsenal 2 Leicester City 1

For a tantalising period in sunny north London yesterday, it looked as if the plug in the match programme for a video of "Arsenal's record-breaking season" might have been in breach of the Trade Descriptions Act. Leicester City, invited to drop in on the party on their way back to the Football League and sit quietly in the corner, stunned the hosts with a goal by the former Arsenal striker Paul Dickov before those two icons, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, made certain that a ghastly anticlimax was avoided. A dull, goalless draw against another all-blue outfit from the Midlands, Birmingham City, a fortnight ago was one thing; yesterday demanded something more worthy of an extraordinary season.

For a tantalising period in sunny north London yesterday, it looked as if the plug in the match programme for a video of "Arsenal's record-breaking season" might have been in breach of the Trade Descriptions Act. Leicester City, invited to drop in on the party on their way back to the Football League and sit quietly in the corner, stunned the hosts with a goal by the former Arsenal striker Paul Dickov before those two icons, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, made certain that a ghastly anticlimax was avoided. A dull, goalless draw against another all-blue outfit from the Midlands, Birmingham City, a fortnight ago was one thing; yesterday demanded something more worthy of an extraordinary season.

Having decorated it from the San Siro to Southampton, the champions never quite summoned up the same quality of football - something that may be impossible once the trophy has been secured - but they did demonstrate the stubborn resilience that has facilitated escape from a hole or two along the way. And to think that the possibility of history being made in this way might never even have been mentioned had Ruud van Nistelrooy hit his penalty kick at Old Trafford a foot lower in September.

The wonderfully worldly Arsène Wenger, spotted waving his arms about in what looked suspiciously like excitement at five o'clock yesterday afternoon, had felt it inevitable that feet would come off accelerator pedals once the title was secured at White Hart Lane (Arsenal do pick their venues for these occasions) with four games remaining. "To stay unbeaten was a tribute to their mental strength," he said as the celebrations around Highbury subsided or, more accurately, paused before Saturday night fever took hold.

A few mean spirits outside the East Midlands will have been rooting for a home defeat, though Leicester have won few friends over the past two years. They gained an unfair advantage over similarly stricken neighbours such as Derby County and Nottingham Forest by going into administration and cancelling debts, enabling them to return to the Premiership immediately after relegation while others in the same position were forced to sell all their best players. Legislation has been introduced to prevent a recurrence and if, say, Leeds were to try the same trick this summer it would result in a 10-point penalty.

Once back in the higher League, Leicester had to deal in free transfers and Bosmans, though sympathy on that score is diminished by the behaviour of some of those concerned in La Manga and even by the unlovely direct football - with its emphasis on long balls and set-pieces - the team have played.

Yesterday they had to do without Muzzy Izzet, who has established one of their few claims to statistical fame this season with the Premiership's greatest number of assists; Dickov was in the running for the highest number of fouls, and the only other list Leicester topped came courtesy of seven red cards. Neither player is likely to be seen in Leicester blue again, and in Izzet's absence there was nothing pretty about their approach even before Dickov, the lone attacker, struck so unexpectedly just before the half-hour. Five men were strung across midfield, which meant 10 behind the ball the moment Arsenal pushed forward, as they did for most of the game.

There was a casual and relaxed air about the place, however, until the unpredictable happenedjust before the half-hour and Arsenal conceded. Not the least surprising element was that it all began with a poor pass from Vieira, aimed for Ashley Cole, who was therefore out of position as Frank Sinclair set off down the right. Skipping past Vieira's challenge, another surprise, he delivered a chipped cross for Dickov to head up and across the hitherto unemployed Jens Lehmann.

The champions appealed in vain for offside, and had to take out their frustration in a series of far more urgent attacks, though without the desired result. Dennis Bergkamp twice misfired and Robert Pires was twice closer from distance, Ian Walker needing two grabs at the second effort as Fredrik Ljungberg homed in on him.By half-time it was Leicester who were looking relaxed, delighting and amusing their followers by keeping the ball in one particularly prolonged spell as the "olés" rang out.

Laughter was on the other side of blue-painted faces within a couple of minutes of the resumption. Henry pulled wide to the left, giving Cole the chance to nip into the area ahead of him, take the pass on his chest and tempt Sinclair into a clear trip. Henry was coolness personified in beating Walker from the spot for his 30th Premiership goal of the campaign.

Leicester were back in defensive mode, requiring excellent saving challenges by Steffen Freund and then Nikos Dabizas to prevent Ljungberg and Pires grabbing the lead. Class was beginning to tell, and midway through the half party-mood kicked in following a second goal. Bergkamp played a delicious through-pass, Freund failed to keep up with Vieira's long legs and the Arsenal captain sidestepped the goalkeeper to ensure history was made.

Walker, fortunate to be heading for Portugal this summer, made way for Danny Coyne, waving what may have been a permanent farewell to the visiting supporters. Dickov did the same, but the most welcome substitution was the one that ushered on Martin Keown, for a full three minutes this time, to qualify for his fourth championship medal. Now for Arsenal's next challenge - retaining the trophy, which they have not managed for almost 70 years.

Arsenal 2 Leicester City 1
Henry pen 47, Vieira 66; Dickov 26

Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 38,419

STATS OF THE DAY

ARSENAL LEICESTER

7 Corners 5
16 Fouls 15
3 Offsides 4
8 on, 7 off Shots 1 on, 1 off
0 Cards 1 (y)

Man of the match Patrick Vieira. Gave a goal away, then rallied the troops with typical resolution.

Stats supplied by Opta

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