Henry double puts Arsenal in the hotseat

Charlton Athletic 0 Arsenal 3
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The Independent Online

Another early goal blitz, including a brace from the unstoppable Thierry Henry, three more comfortable points and, most importantly, top of the league at the start of April. Will yesterday's 12th away win in the Premiership by Arsène Wenger's rampant team prove to be the pivotal afternoon of this season's championship race?

Significantly, provided they win the rest of their fixtures, Arsenal can now afford to slip up at Old Trafford next month and still collect their first league title since 1998 and their second under Wenger. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride? Not if they continue to kill off teams and can keep their nerve over the next few weeks. The Gunners' destiny is now, more than at any time, in their own hands, however Manchester United and Liverpool perform.

Yesterday, Arsenal made three changes from the side that beat Sunderland 48 hours earlier, resting Tony Adams and restoring Martin Keown to the starting line-up along with Lee Dixon and Gilles Grimandi. But just as against the Black Cats at Highbury, they had the game won inside the first half, in this case the first 24 minutes.

Ironically, however, it was Charlton, protecting their own proud unbeaten record in 12 London derbies this season, who came out of the traps first. In the opening minute, Mark Kinsella found Jonatan Johansson, but the Finn's wicked curling centre eluded Jason Euell five yards out.

A goal then for the home side might put a vastly different complexion on the remaining 89 minutes, but Arsenal, masters at punishing opponents' waywardness, were quickly into their stride, Dean Kiely pushing a Dennis Bergkamp effort round the post and Freddie Ljungberg firing just wide.

They were ominous signs for Charlton and by the time they knew what had hit them, they were three behind as Arsenal's combination of pace and teamwork ripped them apart. On 16 minutes, Sol Campbell's clearance fell kindly into the path of Henry but there was nothing lucky about what happened next as the Frenchman outpaced Rufus and finished with a sublime side-foot.

Five minutes later, the lead was doubled. Henry slipped the ball inside to Bergkamp who in turn laid it into the path of Ljungberg for a simple tap-in. So simple yet so clinically brilliant. As was the third goal, a lightning four-man move that was all pace and one-touch football, finished off by Henry. "You might as well go home," chanted the Arsenal faithful.

As a contest it was, indeed, over. To their credit, Charlton dug in, closed off the spaces in the second half and matched the visitors chance for chance, but by this time Arsenal's thoughts were already on Tottenham at Highbury on Saturday.

Wenger, who was without Robert Pires, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Ray Parlour and Lauren, said he felt more positive than ever that his team could go all the way. "An average Arsenal team would have had problems today because Charlton were up for it," he said. "But we were very sharp, all on the same wavelength and in the second half we did a really professional job. We hardly look at other peoples' results because it is what we do that matters."

The only black spot for Wenger was another worrying injury to the England full-back Ashley Cole, who damaged his left knee again and will definitely miss Saturday's derby with Spurs. Cole will undergo a more detailed scan this morning to ascertain the full extent of the damage, but Wenger said he expects the player to be okay in time for the World Cup.

"He's done his ligaments again on the same knee which is bad news for us and England, but less for England because he should be alright for them," said Wenger. "I don't know whether he will be out for the season, but he will miss the Spurs game and the fact that it is the second time on the same ligament, we have to be cautious."

Charlton Athletic (4-4-2): Kiely 6; Young 6, Rufus 4, Costa 5, Powell 5; Stuart 6, Parker 6, Kinsella 7, Robinson 6 (Lisbee 5, 65); Euell 5, Johansson 6. Substitutes not used: Ilic (gk), Bart-Williams, Konchesky, Fortune.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman 7; Dixon 7, Campbell 8, Keown 7, Cole 6 (Luzhny 6, 28); Wiltord 8, Vieira 7, Grimandi 6, Ljungberg 8; Bergkamp 8 (Edu, 86), Henry 9. Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Jeffers, Kanu.

Referee: A d'Urso (Billericay) 7.

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