Henry supplies the spark for Arsenal's sputtering engine

Arsenal 3 - Birmingham City 0
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The Independent Online

Only the serial Arsenal optimist will be deluded. Banish from your mind a couple of late goals from Thierry Henry - including, God forbid, a header from the Frenchman - and a splendidly executed opener from Robert Pires, and any belief that this performance resembled a similar outcome against Birmingham City's neighbours, Aston Villa, seven weeks ago which had us all murmuring superlatives is swiftly dissipated. In truth, this was the antithesis of that sublime occasion.

Only the serial Arsenal optimist will be deluded. Banish from your mind a couple of late goals from Thierry Henry - including, God forbid, a header from the Frenchman - and a splendidly executed opener from Robert Pires, and any belief that this performance resembled a similar outcome against Birmingham City's neighbours, Aston Villa, seven weeks ago which had us all murmuring superlatives is swiftly dissipated. In truth, this was the antithesis of that sublime occasion.

Yet there is the suspicion that as unsatisfactory as much of the Gunners' exhibition was, this may well have the effect of a starting handle that will bring Arsenal's Premiership classic motor smoothly back into life. They badly need it, Chelsea having earlier increased the points difference between themselves and the champions to eight at the start of play.

It was the first of a trio of crucial home matches in nine days, with Rosenborg in the Champions' League to follow on Tuesday and Chelsea here on Sunday, which will heavily influence the destination of both the championship and Arsenal's continued presence in Europe. As the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, explained: "We go into the second match now with bigger belief than we had at one minute to three today.

"We did a job in a professional way, with a great focus, although there was certainly less style than we are used to. We needed to respond [to two defeats in the North-west in the past week, one inflicted on the seniors, the other on the boys' brigade] and come back in the dressing room with the points. Our confidence had gone a little bit, and that only comes back from results."

Explanations had been plentiful for Arsenal's descent from their familiar pedestal. Among them, suggestions that Patrick Vieira's powers are, temporarily, on the wane; that Henry, with those almost Roman Emperor-like gestures of acknowledgement when he has scored, has begun to believe the hyperbole that follows every performance; oh, and that goalkeeper Jens Lehmann is too prone to error.

Wenger attempted to address the last item on the list, though in his selection of the 27-year-old Spaniard Manuel Almunia as a replacement for the German goalkeeper he appears to have created an even worse situation. Almunia, the man whose generosity provided Manchester United's David Bellion with a first-minute goal in the League Cup tie on Wednesday night, had one, yes, just one, Birmingham effort on target to deal with on his Premiership debut, a second-half volley from the substitute Clinton Morrison. He managed to allow the ball to spill from his fingers. Fortunately for him, he prevented it crossing the line.

Whatever the London side's recent malaise, there was no immediate evidence that the harsh words within the dressing room following last Sunday's defeat at Liverpool had purged it from their system. Confronted by a team who had arrived here determined to negate Arsenal's central fluidity, employing a congested midfield behind Emile Heskey, Arsenal's passing was awry, and they failed to fashion an opportunity in the first half-hour.

Then a goal arrived out of virtually nothing from Pires, whose recent performances have been among those open to criticism, though it is difficult to argue with nine Premiership goals from midfield by early December. Though the Frenchman's attempted pass to the outstanding Fredrik Ljungberg was untidily cleared by the visitors' rearguard, Pires followed from the edge of the area to direct a low drive past the visiting goalkeeper, Maik Taylor. It was his 50th Arsenal goal.

After the break, Ljungberg had a penalty appeal rejected by the referee, Dermot Gallagher, after being felled by Jamie Clapham. Then the Swede dug out a cross which found Henry unmarked. The Frenchman should have scored, except, of course, he does not do headers, or so we thought, and he directed the chance straight at Taylor.

Morrison's appearance revitalised City somewhat, and after his attempt had embarrassed Almunia, Heskey drove over the bar. With 10 minutes remaining, though, Arsenal substitute Gaël Clichy slid a ball down the left flank to Henry, who, starting from just inside the visitors' half, proved too resourceful for Mario Melchiot and scored with aplomb. Then came the coup de grâce, a header from Henry, his 15th goal of the season, after Ljungberg had again been the provider.

It all flattered Arsenal, yet one could have little sympathy for Steve Bruce's team, who underlined just why they had won only two Premiership games this season and are the division's lowest scorers. "We've brought in bigger and better players this season, but there's no doubt we're right there in the relegation fight," admitted Bruce afterwards.

Rosenborg, Arsenal's opponents on Tuesday in the final round of Champions' League matches, were spectators. It is anyone's guess what they made of it all. This by no means answered the questions ranged against Arsenal. It may just be the catalyst for better things ahead, though.

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