Goalless but guileful, Henry plays the dream team man

FA Cup final: Arsenal indebted to their leading scorer as he pledges his future
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The Independent Football

Footballers and their advisers are not always endowed with the most sensitive sense of timing, as those West Ham admirers of Jermain Defoe will bear testament this week. So it will have come as a profound shock that Thierry Henry selected a most apposite moment to confirm his commitment to the Gunners, the double Footballer of the Year concluding a contract which ensures that at least one piece of those exquisite items of Highbury furniture is nailed down until 2007.

Would that all his players were so obliging, Arsène Wenger must be muttering to himself, at a time when some of his countrymen have issued all manner of doubts about their own futures at Highbury, although Robert Pires confirmed last night that he hoped for a satisfactory conclusion to his contract talks with the club.

Just one thought, though. While they have their fountain pens unsheathed to capture Pires's signature, how about the Arsenal board members issuing their own gesture of faith, to Dennis Bergkamp?

Some will scoff, of course. At times peerless, at others peripheral, the Dutchman, 34 today, could be considered a luxury product on an inflated salary as his manager searches to rejuvenate his squad. But even if invited to perform in the occasional cameo role, he remains an asset. And, let's be frank, to those neutrals among us he remains the consummate artist with a ball at his feet, capable of inspired invention.

Like Henry, he enjoyed a significant involvement in what transpired to be Arsenal's winner during a contest in which the Londoners enjoyed an authority that belied the final scoreline, but from which Gordon Strachan's braves can extract much pride. One second-half moment, when Bergkamp bemused two defenders with a caress of the ball, followed by one of those tantalisingly curled attempts palmed away by the unfortunate goalkeeper, Antti Niemi – removed on a stretcher with a self-inflicted injury a little later – illustrated how much of a loss to English football it will be if he returns to his homeland.

The official Man of the Match was Henry, and it was a merited award, even if the Frenchman did not add to his season's total of 32 goals (and also managed to acquire a caution for "simulation", referee Graham Barber adjudging him to have taken a dive in the second half). But as his manager never fails to remind us, scoring goals is far from his entire raison d'être.

The winning goal epitomised the contribution that Henry makes to the collective Arsenal argument, which for the most part this season has been most persuasive, even if the championship vote ultimately went against them. His impudent flick forward on the edge of the area found Bergkamp lurking in space, and though the goal that Pires eventually converted, after Freddie Ljungberg helped things along, was abetted by some fortune, it was a typical product of the swift, incisive passing we have come to expect from the Gunners.

Henry's act of solidarity to the cause meant that on display were – unusually in these uncertain times for clubs who hold the contracts of the most talented players – two apparently contented forwards, with James Beattie reportedly happy to stay at St Mary's for the forseeable future.

In a sense, the respective fortunes of the pair told the story. If Henry does not score, there is a healthy queue, headed by Pires, Ljungberg and Sylvain Wiltord, ready to accept that responsibility. Perturbingly for Saints, Beattie's 23 League goals this season represent more than half of his side's total. If he doesn't feed on what is prov-ided they are apt to suffer from starvation.

Beattie and the Southampton midfield fashioned their share of half-chances, but the much-maligned Arsenal back-line, with Martin Keown all diligence and endeavour and Oleg Luzhny performing consider-ably above what we anticipated, ensured Beattie never glimpsed an inviting sight of goal. Not until the final minute of added time, that is, when Ashley Cole intercepted his goal-bound header on the line.

Arsenal could at last celebrate a trophy, which in this season of overstatement by their manager and underachievement by his players has hitherto eluded them.

This was Saints' chance to inflict themselves on the nation's consciousness for the first time since Bobby Stokes' final over a quarter of a century ago. The fates were with them, too. While Arsenal's progress has been strewn with Indiana Jones-type perils, Strachan's team were here by dint of victories over Spurs, Millwall, Norwich, Wolves and, er, Watford. As hillsides to climb, it was more like that confronted by Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music.

During the presentation of the teams, Sir Bobby Robson, a most appropriate guest of honour, had placed his hand briefly on the shoulder of Strachan. In support or sympathy? It was impossible to say. For a man who is to a tracksuit born, Strachan looked incongruous in his suit – certainly compared to the urbane Wenger – and initially looked as apprehensive as a best man about to make his speech. As he stood on the touchline, it was Ginger Relish versus French Mustard, and you just wondered whether the little Scot could cut it. Steeped in self-doubt, as he conceded himself beforehand, he enjoyed playing the poor jester to Wenger's crown prince.

Yet his team, as we anticipated, quickly offered much to please. But, as is so frequently the case with Arsenal, they need time to oil the mechanism before the machine begins to function smoothly. Once Henry and Bergkamp struck that scintillating rhythm a few minutes before half-time and Pires struck, it was always going to be a daunting process to haul themselves back into contention.

In truth, it required that if this final was to remain longer in the memory than some we could mention from recent years. But ultimately, despite that late scare for Arsenal, it will prove largely forgettable. It was not an afternoon that could support with any certainty the assertion that we will still have an FA Cup to be proud of by the time it returns to Wembley – and not have an FA Corpse on our hands.

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