Henry back in groove as Arsenal hit autopilot

Arsenal 3 Wolverhampton Wanderers 0
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The Independent Football

Arsenal's dismissal of an inadequate Wolves team was a perfunctionary affair yesterday but, given Chelsea's traumatic afternoon across the capital, few home fans were complaining.

The match was over within the first 20 minutes, Arsenal having been gifted two goals by Jody Craddock in that spell. The first, a 13th-minute own goal, may have been unfortunate, but the second, which enabled Thierry Henry to score his first goal at Highbury since mid-October, was of the sort to launch all manner of "Christmas present" clichés.

Arsenal thereafter engaged cruise control, stirring briefly in the final minutes when Henry rewarded those supporters who lingered on a bitterly cold afternoon with a slickly taken third.

Victory took Arsenal to the top for three hours, and though Manchester United later regained the summit following their 3-2 defeat of Everton, the win enabled them to reach the season's mid-point unbeaten.

Though after last season's experience, Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, was not about to promise his team would complete the season undefeated, but he did say: "To do what we have done already is very hard. We have been very, very consistent.

"I'm pleased we treated Wolves with respect. Two-nil can be tricky. In the past we've become complacent but we remained serious."

Only once, after 32 minutes, did Wolves threaten to score. Colin Cameron's through ball finding Kenny Miller breaking behind Pascal Cygan. The Scot had only Jens Lehmann to beat but his unconvincing shot allowed the goalkeeper to save to his left.

That, and a mix-up between Lehmann and Cygan which might have been punished by better opponents, were the only moments of concern for Wenger. Both incidents suggested that, though Cygan has done better this season than last, Wenger will be relieved to have Lauren return at right-back, so freeing Kolo Touré for a return to his usual role in the centre.

The Arsenal manager is already delighted at the apparent return to fitness of Patrick Vieira after his prolonged thigh problem. This was the Arsenal captain's fourth consecutive match and it was noticeable that, after carefully limiting his involvement in the previous three, he had expanded his range.

"He is now at 80 to 90 per cent of full fitness," Wenger said. "For the first time he was dominant again."

Wenger was also pleased with another impressive performance by Gael Clichy at left-back. The teenage Frenchman showed poise in possession, moved energetically and intelligently off the ball and tackled well. On this showing, Ashley Cole will soon have a contender for his place.

Not that this was the toughest test for Clichy. He had been part of the Arsenal "reserve" team which had crushed Wolves 5-1 here in the Carling Cup earlier in the month and the experience had clearly scarred the visitors. The occasion - one hesitates to call it a contest - took on the air of a training routine from the start. Wolves played defence, Arsenal attack. Even Arsenal's goals did not alter the pattern. If the visitors' Plan A was to steal a point from a 0-0 draw, Plan B was to keep the score down.

Plan A had lasted all of 13 minutes. Michael Oakes had already twice denied Henry but he was left helpless when Craddock deflected the ball past him after Vieira had been first to Henry's corner. Seven minutes later, Craddock dallied in possession, Vieira stole the ball, drew Oakes, then set up Henry. Game over.

"It is never an easy place to come so you can't afford to give them a helping hand," said a disgruntled David Jones, the Wolves manager. "The first goal was a set-play, the second was ridiculous."

Henry, who had surprisingly not previously scored since his hat-trick in Milan, a four-match langour, then hit the post with a 35-yard free-kick which went through the wall. But with Oakes denying Ray Parlour and Dennis Bergkamp, Wolves hung on until the break.

The second period drifted until, late on, Arsenal picked up the pace and, after Oakes had saved from Bergkamp, Edu released Henry, who finished with a flourish.

The manner of the defeat gave no indication whatsoever that Wolves may buck the statistic that no club bottom of the Premiership at Christmas has survived relegation.

Jones added: "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see where our problems lie. We are conceding too many goals and not scoring enough."

This match was always going to be about damage limitation, though. If Wolves are to stay up they must start by winning, with tomorrow's match at home to Leeds first on the agenda.

Goals: Craddock og (13) 1-0; Henry (20) 2-0; (89) 3-0.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann 5; Touré 6, Campbell 6, Cygan 5, Clichy 7; Ljungberg 6 (Edu 5, 72), Parlour 6, Vieira 8, Pires 6 (Aliadière 5, 72); Bergkamp 7, Henry 7. Substitutes not used: Stack (gk), Keown, Kanu.

Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-5-1): Oakes 8; Luzhny 3, Butler 4, Craddock 3, Naylor 5; Camara 4 (Sturridge, 84), Rae 5, Ince 4, Cameron 5, Kennedy 3; Miller 3 (Newton 4, 74). Substitutes not used: Marshall (gk), Iversen, Clyde.

Referee: P Dowd (Stoke-on-Trent) 4.

Bookings: Arsenal: Vieira, Aliadière. Wolves: Ince, Rae, Luzhny, Butler, Naylor.

Man of the match: Vieira.

Attendance: 38,003.