Pires inspires Arsenal to highlight the great divide

Arsenal 1 Southampton 0
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The Independent Football

He was in his fifties, face wet with tears and eyes full of pride. He had finally persuaded his son to take the one FA Cup final ticket the family had laid hands on and enter the Millennium Stadium. Unable to beg, buy or barter another, he was off to watch in the pub.

The father's argument was that he had been at Wembley in 1976 when his son had been too young to attend. Now it was the latter's turn. The son's argument, a painful one to express, was that with Southampton finals only coming around every 27 years Dad might not be alive next time.

Nearby another Southampton fan was retelling, envy mixed with disbelief, a conversation with an Arsenal supporting work-mate. "He said he wasn't going to bother going this year."

Three hours later, in the bowels of the stadium, Gordon Strachan set aside his disappointment at Saints' narrow defeat to pay tribute to their fans. "It's nice to get somebody in the final who appreciates it," he said. "I came here for Liverpool-Arsenal two years ago and I don't think their fans really appreciated what it meant, they get here so often. An hour before the game our end was full. There was no one at the Arsenal end."

This dichotomy is only likely to grow as the wealth of the super-clubs increases. This season the title went to Manchester United, the Worthington Cup to Liverpool and, now, the FA Cup to Arsenal.

The latter competition used to be known for giantkilling, and Everton, Newcastle and Liverpool – knocked out by Shrewsbury, Wolves and Crystal Palace – may still regard it thus. But only once in the last decade has the winner come from outside the Premiership's top six, in 1995 when Everton (15th) upset Manchester United. Strachan was not prepared to get into what he called "the politics" of the issue except to suggest this was always the case, but, in the previous 20 years, 13 winners had finished outside the top flight's leading six.

The change is not good for the game. Strachan suggested the recent dominance of Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea (who have provided 11 of the last 12 winners) gave the lie to suggestions that the Cup had been devalued, but Arsenal's priorities were clear when they omitted Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp from the starting line-ups against Manchester United, Chelsea and, in the semi-final, Sheffield United.

The fact is that the élite are now so strong that they can beat most opponents at three-quarter strength. Consider Saturday. Arsenal were missing Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell and had three defenders carrying injury. Yet they were always the better side, their superior class evident.

"They had more strength, speed, ability and experience," Strachan said. "Unless they had an off-day, we needed to get lucky. We got a wee bit of luck at the beginning, which kept us in the game, but we didn't get the big bit of luck we needed at the end."

It is not Strachan's fault that these words, which are entirely accurate, do not sit well with an eighth-place Premiership ranking. This underlining of the gulf between the élite and the middling was further illustrated by the Scot's tactical approach.

Fearful of being over-run on the Saints' right-flank, Strachan drafted in Chris Baird at right-back. The 21-year-old son of Ballymoney, so unheralded that his name did not appear in the £8.50(!) match programme, had made one previous start. With Paul Telfer moving to midfield Fabrice Fernandes was dropped, a victim of his defensive laxity in the recent 6-1 defeat at Highbury.

The ploy worked in as much that, with Baird excellent and Telfer industrious, Arsenal made little headway down their left. However, it reduced the Saints' attacking options to long balls and set-pieces. This played to the strengths of Martin Keown and, unexpectedly, Oleg Luzhny. Though Southampton trailed from the 37th minute, and Strachan said to open up Arsenal they increasingly needed men who were "brave on the ball", a quality he credits Fernandes with, it was not until the 85th minute he summoned the disgruntled Frenchman.

Put simply, Strachan's plan was to keep Arsenal within reach, then nick something at the end. It nearly worked but it confirmed that the gap between second and eighth is a chasm. Sir Bobby Robson, Saturday's guest of honour, understood. Reviewing Newcastle's season he said: "To go from fourth to third is a huge jump."

Arsenal were quick to emphasise their in-built supremacy, Henry bursting clear within 20 seconds. But for Claus Lundekvam hanging desperately on to his shirt, he would probably have scored.

Henry continued to create waves of panic but gradually Southampton settled, helped by Baird clearing a Bergkamp shot off the line. After 18 minutes the youngster sent David Seaman scrambling across his goal to save and the game was nicely poised when Arsenal, belatedly passing shorter and quicker, scored. Ray Parlour drove forward, Henry slipped a pass to Bergkamp who crossed to Fredrik Ljungberg. His blocked shot rebounded off his shins to Pires. As Telfer froze, the Frenchman smartly controlled the ball, then drove it low past Antti Niemi. It had a touch of class Southampton always lacked.

Thereafter Niemi kept Arsenal at bay before tearing a calf muscle just past the hour. On came Paul Jones, the first FA Cup goalkeeping substitute, the first Welshman to play in a Millennium Stadium FA Cup final, and destined to be the first goalkeeper to receive a loser's medal without conceding a goal since Manchester United's Ray Wood spent most of the game on the left wing after Peter McParland fractured his cheekbone in 1957.

Jones, after making a fine save from a deflected Henry shot, also augmented the attack as the Saints launched a late assault. In the 83rd minute (the same time as Bobby Stokes' 1976 winner) Brett Ormerod had brought a very good save from Seaman. In injury-time the goalkeeper, the oldest finalist since Charlton's John Oakes in 1946 and the third-oldest ever, was beaten, but James Beattie's header was blocked on the line by Ashley Cole's thigh.

Arsenal thus secured their third FA Cup triumph in six years but, if their fans were blasé, the players were not. They danced the conga joyously, with Campbell and Vieira to the fore. The celebrations, said Arsène Wenger, were borne as much out of relief as joy. "Not having won the championship put us under extra pressure as we could have finished without a trophy," he said. "You could see the pressure we were under in the second half, we were not as free as usual."

It was a reminder that being the best brings its own stresses, albeit ones that Beattie, Bridge and other Saints would love to experience. The reality, as Strachan tacitly admitted, is that they will probably have to move on to do so. "The FA Cup can make you feel like a champion for a day," he said. "I'm hoping we can get to that level as a group, but I'm certain some of the players can."

Goal: Pires (37) 1-0.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Lauren, Keown, Luzhny, Cole; Ljungberg, Parlour, Gilberto Silva, Pires; Bergkamp (Wiltord, 76), Henry. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Kanu, Touré, Van Bronckhorst.

Southampton (4-4-2): Niemi (Jones, 65); Baird (Fernandes, 85), Lundekvam, M Svensson, Bridge; Telfer, A Svensson (Tessem, 74), Oakley, Marsden; Beattie, Ormerod. Substitutes not used: Williams, Higginbotham.

Referee: G Barber (Tring).

Bookings: Arsenal: Keown, Henry. Southampton: Beattie, Telfer, Marsden, M Svensson.

Man of the match: Henry.

Attendance: 73,726.