So much for the mass suspensions that were going to ruin Arsenal's chances of regaining the championship title. Soon after the shenanigans when they visited Manchester United in September, one back-page headline shouted: "Kiss Goodbye To The Title" and predicted that the London club would collect bans totalling 20 matches from the new hard-line Football Association. In the event, whether by clever plea-bargaining or not, Arsenal escaped with nine games, the majority of them being served while the players concerned are injured.
Of the four banned from appearing yesterday, Lauren (four matches), Martin Keown (three) and Patrick Vieira (one) were unfit and will remain so for some time. Only Ray Parlour (one match) would otherwise have played. So like Vieira he has now done his porridge, as well as being rested for the Champions' League game away to Internazionale on Tuesday.
Inter will hardly provide more vigorously physical opposition than the short-sleeved Birmingham City on a murky West Midlands day, but class will out, and Arsenal oozed it, even with a makeshift midfield and defence. Sol Campbell helped the inconsistent Pascal Cygan through an excellent first appearance since April, Kolo Touré only once allowed Stan Lazaridis to escape - making it a bad day all round for the Australian - and a midfield with Robert Pires in the centre and the French teenager Gael Clichy making his debut on the left refused to be intimidated by Robbie Savage and Aliou Cissé.
Then there was Thierry Henry, not troubling the scorers for once, yet creating all three goals with his vision and dexterity by sending a team-mate clear on the helpless Maik Taylor. The fact that the first of those moments came as early as the fourth minute put Birmingham in deep trouble, for as their manager, Steve Bruce, well knew from last season's 4-0 drubbing on the same ground, Arsenal are the best around at counterattacking. The decisive second goal, as he ruefully confessed, summed them up: "A corner to us and 15 seconds later, it's in the back of our net."
So Liverpool's Premiership record of 12 matches unbeaten to start a season has now been hijacked. Arsène Wenger, who could hardly have wished for more from such a depleted squad, said: "We wanted to start quickly for the confidence of the side. Then we defended very well and knew we could score on the break."
Congratulated on his 400th game in charge of Arsenal, Wenger responded: "Amazing, I can't believe it - until I look in the mirror."
There was no reason for grey hairs yesterday. Even in the absence of the injured Christophe Dugarry, Birmingham stuck for an hour to their recent system of using David Dunn just behind the only genuine striker, Mikael Forssell. Any hopes they had of getting at the visitors before they had settled soon disappeared, Arsenal finding an easy rhythm and establishing immediate control. Dennis Bergkamp charged down Kenny Cunningham's attempted clearance and the ball moved smoothly to Henry and then Fredrik Ljungberg, who timed his run into the penalty area perfectly to score.
Henry, drifting away from three defenders to shoot at Taylor, might soon have doubled the lead, and it took the best past of half an hour for the home side to exert some pressure. Lazaridis had once beaten the otherwise solid Cygan to a low cross at the near post, stabbing wide, but there was no work for Jens Lehmann in the Arsenal goal until he held a sharp shot on the turn by the same player.
Far too often, Birmingham surrendered possession unnecessarily, which is hardly the best policy against Arsenal, who are more than reluctant to return it. Their other worry, as a combative midfield tried to knock the visitors out of their composed stride, was an early booking for Cissé, who then received a final warning for clattering into Bergkamp.
Within three minutes of the restart, Arsenal ought to have scored again. Edu's pass from deep on the touchline sent Henry racing into his favourite inside-left channel, cutting in to shoot but watching Taylor touch the ball round the far post at full stretch. In the 58th minute, the goalkeeper was forced to make a desperate save from one of his own players, Cunningham almost turning the ball over the line after Henry strode away with Bruce and his coaches screaming for an offside decision.
The arrival of Stern John, sensibly replacing Cissé for the last half-hour, revived Birmingham and their crowd, and alarmed their opponents for the first time in a long period. Savage crossed and Forssell beat Lehmann to the ball but headed it wide, and shortly afterwards, Stephen Clemence, uncomfortable on the right side, hit a rare passable opportunity too high.
The storm was blown out in classic fashion with 10 minutes to play. Touré headed a Birmingham corner away to the substitute Nwankwo Kanu, whose deft touch was followed by another from Henry and then the silkiest of all by Bergkamp, sent clear of a labouring defence to chip over Taylor as if with a sand wedge. There was more, and a bonus for the goal difference, in the 88th minute as Henry fed Pires for another delicate finish from eight yards. Wenger was even able to give young Justin Hoyte two minutes of action at the end, doubling his previous Premiership experience - and bringing a second win bonus.Reuse content