Henry restores the Arsenal habit

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The Independent Football

Arsenal showed no hangover from the crushing midweek defeat by Manchester United as a first-half scoring blitz destroyed David O'Leary's side at Villa Park.

Gunners boss Arsene Wenger had publicly written off his side's hopes of retaining their crown after the 4-2 reversal at the hands of the Red Devils.

But that message has clearly not been transmitted to his players who played with a belief and conviction that they could still overhaul Chelsea.

This was Arsenal at their imperial best as their sweeping football and surging pace carved through a shellshocked Villa midfield and defence with Freddie Ljungberg, Thierry Henry and Ashley Cole all striking in the opening half hour.

Ljungberg was a constant menace down the right flank, while Dennis Bergkamp continued to show what a class act he is even in the latter stages of his career with his vision and touch play.

But of equal importance was the return in midfield of Edu after a three-month absence with a broken foot and then while he tried to obtain a move away from Highbury in the transfer window.

Villa were outclassed for all but the final quarter and were incapable of competing physically with their opponents who brushed them aside with ease like men against boys.

But at least they can take heart from the performance in the centre of the park of rookie Steve Davis who was unfazed at the awesome task of trying to get the better of Patrick Vieira and Ljungberg.

Arsenal were in command from the first whistle and it needed a double save from Villa goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen to prevent them taking an early lead.

Sorensen went down to his right to parry away a left-footed curling effort from Bergkamp and then he was up quickly to block the rebound effort from Henry.

Gunners skipper Vieira wasted a good chance to break the deadlock when he volleyed over after collecting a chip from Bergkamp.

A goal seemed inevitable and it arrived after 10 minutes through Ljungberg who calmly clipped the ball over Sorensen after seizing onto Edu's pass.

Henry was guilty of a glaring miss when he scooped the ball over the bar from close range after Edu's shot had struck a post.

But he ended his seven-game run without a goal after 14 minutes as the Villa defence was once again all at sea.

This time Ljungberg turned goal provider with a pass into the path of Henry who coolly drilled his shot across Sorensen into the corner of the net for his 21st goal of the campaign.

The recalled Jens Lehmann came out quickly to whip the ball away from striker Juan Pablo Angel in a rare Villa raid, but after 29 minutes another superb move led to Cole adding a third goal.

Henry's crossfield ball found Bergkamp whose first-time flick played in the over-lapping Cole and his superb shot flew past the despairing dive of Sorensen.

A few chants of 'We want Ellis out' were aimed at Villa chairman Doug Ellis from the Holte End after the third goal.

Vieira came within inches of adding a fourth goal three minutes before half-time with a curling effort which flew just wide.

Then Henry shot wide from eight yards when he looked odds-on to score after a surging 60-yard run by Reyes.

Samuel's frustration got the better of him after 53 minutes when he was yellow-carded for a crude touch-line challenge on the energetic Ljungberg.

Then Djemba-Djemba followed him into referee Steve Bennett's notebook for a late tackle on Henry which checked his run into the penalty area.

With the points effectively already wrapped up, perhaps there was not quite the same edge to Arsenal's play in the second period and rookie Davis was competing as well as anyone in the Villa midfield.

Villa gave themselves a ray of hope after 73 minutes when Angel turned home Ulises de la Cruz's cross for his seventh goal of the campaign, but it was too little, too late.

In the closing seconds, a missile of some description appeared to be thrown at Vieira from the touch-line and stewards went to investigate.