Pires raises the roof as captain saves day

Arsenal 1 Southampton 0

For Arsenal, five points adrift of Manchester United and prematurely eased out of the Champions' League again, there was sunshine after the rain. With south Wales damp and grey until mid-afternoon, the roof was closed in Cardiff but by tea-time their supporters, outshouted for most of the match, were finally raising it as the sunbeams streamed in. A historic double Double may have disappeared but the goal Robert Pires scored seven minutes before half-time ensured that, rightly, they did not say adieu to the season empty-handed. If only more matches had finished 1-0 to the Arsenal, Arsène Wenger might have had more to celebrate.

Not that this was boring, boring stuff. Play swept from end to end in the humid, enclosed dome at a pace that was a tribute to the players' fitness. Few managers work their men harder than Gordon Strachan and he was rewarded with the expected spirit and tenacity, though just not quite sufficient quality on the day. James Beattie's potential to embarrass a defence lacking the suspended Sol Campbell kept them hoping right to the death, when he had a header blocked on the line.

There was always a doubt, however, about whether Claus Lundekvam would have the nous – let alone the speed – to maintain any sort of control over Thierry Henry, who might have scored a hat-trick in the opening 10 minutes. A yellow card for diving was the only blemish on the Frenchman's day.

Dennis Bergkamp had some sublime moments just behind him and although Fredrik Ljungberg failed – just – in his aim of becoming the first man to score in three successive finals, Arsenal were sufficiently competitive in midfield even without Patrick Vieira to emerge with victories from two of them. Given the nat-ure of the game against Liverpool two years ago, it should have been a hat-trick.

Consolation prize or not, the squad looked happy enough with the outcome as they performed a conga of delight. The cerebral Wenger, needless to say, was not dancing along in line, but was giving the first of a crop of interviews in which he said: "I think it was a big blow mentally when we lost the championship and we have shown mental strength by responding. I hope in the next 20 years Arsenal have many 'disappointing' seasons like this one."

Strachan had reason to be pleased with his men's efforts, and absolutely delighted with their feat of rising from 18th in the Premiership at the end of September to eighth at the end, their highest position since 1985. "We had huge hearts, battled for every ball and I'm very proud," he said.

The manager, to whom much of the credit for the season's work and a Uefa Cup place must go, sprang the one surprise on either side when the teams were confirmed, using the Northern Ireland Under-21 international Chris Baird at right-back with Paul Telfer pushed further forward. It constituted a vote of not much confidence in the unpredictable Frenchman Fabrice Fernandes, and Baird soon became a central figure in the drama.

Although behind at the interval, the Saints showed character, for a side who began so nervously, in recovering to enjoy so much of the first half. The yellow shirts had barely finished their huddle than they were all in the wrong places as Henry broke past Lundekvam, who might even have been fouling him, and forced Antti Niemi to save at the near post.

The Finnish goalkeeper fluffed Henry's next effort in the eighth minute, and Berg-kamp's angled shot from the rebound was cleared off the line by Baird. Then Henry went clear on to Bergkamp's marvellous crossfield ball but he was on his weaker left foot and shot tamely.

At last Southampton could catch their breath. Once they did, the favourites' followers were forced to hold theirs on half a dozen occasions. Michael Svensson, the centre-half playing in his native Sweden's colours, was troublesome when he ventured upfield for set-pieces and ought to have done better than hooking high into the Arsenal end after Martin Keown and Campbell's deputy Oleg Luzhny failed to clear one of the long throws hurled at them. There was more encouragement for the noisy South coast fans as Baird curled a confident low drive towards the bottom corner of the net, forcing David Seaman into his first, scrambling save.

But after bookings for Keown and Beattie, Arsenal regained their composure and scored from the sort of move that decorated their football so often amid the rich promise of last autumn. Ray Parlour, Henry and Bergkamp were all involved, the Dutchman cutting a pass back square for Ljungberg whose shot took a ricochet for Pires to drive under Niemi's dive.

It might have been worse, hard as that would have been. Only a minute later Henry, continuing to demonstrate his mastery of Lundekvam, was in again, the pass not quite right for Pires who was off-balance as he shot over the bar. Bergkamp's balance, as ever, was perfect as he drove at goal from the same angle as before, only to see the same frustrating outcome – Baird, on his eventful big day, blocking on the line again.

Unlike several recent finals, exclusively featuring bigger clubs, it was a fine, open contest. After half-time Arsenal, a goal to the good, could play on the break, and were given the chance to do so by South-ampton's need to commit men forward. So one minute Paul Telfer was heading a corner over Seaman's bar and the next Henry was sprinting away and forcing Niemi to push a grounder round the post.

Sadly, the goalkeeper's final was almost over. Just after the hour, he appeared to catch his studs in kicking a clearance and collapsed in severe pain. Enter Paul Jones, beaten six times in the recent phoney war at Highbury, on the ground where he has performed with distinction for Wales. He finished a loser without being beaten.

Of the outfield substitutes, Southampton's Jo Tessem might have made the most impact, Lauren just managing to block his shot from an excellent position 60 seconds after the Norwegian took over from Anders Svensson. Tessem's header set up Brett Ormerod, but Seaman played a captain's part in saving the day, and right at the finish Ashley Cole, stationed just inside a post, kept out Beattie's header.

The most notable incident at the other end was Henry's booking for an exaggerated tumble over Michael Svensson's challenge that he naturally felt should have brought a penalty. It was all that Arsenal had to complain about on an after-noon of – at least partial – redemption.

Arsenal 1 Southampton 0
Pires 38

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 73,726

Comments