A rout, one led in formidable style by Thierry Henry, and a simple reminder that there are no more dazzling attacking shows in the Premiership than Arsenal when they ignite. On nights like these, they have the power to make everyone in Highbury remember that this was a team who were once unbeatable, until the neurotic brilliance at the heart of Arsene Wenger's side began to disintegrate in late October.
When they return to the reality of the Premiership table this morning, the unfortunate conclusion Arsenal's players will have to draw is that there are no extra points for artistic genius and they are still 11 behind Chelsea and two adrift of Manchester United. Those margins are the reminder that the absorbing, delightful football that they exhibited last night has not always been reliable enough to maintain their supremacy in English football.
There were two goals from Henry, one each contributed by Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp and a fierce low drive from Jose Antonio Reyes for the second goal which Wenger suggested showed the Spanish winger was "happy again". After his brush with a radio station hoaxer last week, Reyes, Wenger said, was "positive and confident". "If you look at the number of chances we create," the Arsenal manager said, "there are more than any other team in the Premiership."
They might well be the Premiership's top scorers, with 63 already, but the five last night were added against Crystal Palace by a 16-man Arsenal squad that did not include a single Englishman. When that was pointed out to Wenger at the end of the night he seemed genuinely not to have realised. "I do not look at the passport, just the quality of the attitude," he said. "Besides, Sven [Goran Eriksson] was here so who was he looking at?"
It seems almost incredible, but for the opening stages last night Arsenal were not the strongest side. Jens Lehmann was reinstated to the Arsenal team only last week, but the goalkeeper's concentration drifted dangerously in the third minute when a back pass by Gaël Clichy slipped under his foot and he was forced to chase it back to his line. Close, but it did not have the pace to roll home under the gaze of linesman Rob Lewis, the same official who failed to spot that Roy Carroll had not kept out Pedro Mendes' famous lob for Tottenham at Old Trafford.
There was not much in Arsenal's resistance that hinted at the eruption that was about to take place. In the space of seven minutes after the half hour they shifted, without warning, into destructive, relentless form and by the time Palace had gathered themselves, they found themselves three goals down and pulverised.
On 32 minutes, Vieira switched the ball from the right inside to Edu who found Reyes on the left wing. His near post cross was turned in by Bergkamp. Three minutes later, Fitz Hall's clearance was gathered by Reyes on the edge of the area and he lashed a low shot past goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly.
Inevitably though, all previous contributions were overshadowed by the first serious offering from Henry. Six minutes to play in the first half and the French striker accepted a short corner from Reyes and headed off on the direct route to goal. After half a dozen steps, the shot that he unleashed past Kiraly buried itself in the away goal before the Palace goalkeeper had barely managed to spring off his feet.
The fourth on 54 minutes started with Bergkamp who found Henry mid-run on the edge of the Palace area. The striker stroked a diagonal ball across the area that Vieira feigned to control and then, at the very last moment, allowed to trickle untouched across his stride. Utterly disorientated, Kiraly collapsed at the Arsenal captain's feet and Vieira was at liberty to walk the ball into an empty net.
There were two more chances for Arsenal, either side of Andy Johnson's 16th goal in the Premiership this season, that was cracked in from the penalty spot after a trip by Vieira on the new England international on 63 minutes. "For half an hour we were right in the game," said manager Iain Dowie and Palace now find themselves two points clear of Norwich in 18th place but six behind Blackburn just above them.
Henry's 19th goal of the Premiership season, on 78 minutes, was an extravagantly taken drive on the end of a move that involved the substitute Mathieu Flamini and another fine turn and pass by Bergkamp. It had been a vivid reminder of Arsenal's thrilling best although a touch late to influence the Premiership title. "I'm not upset by that," Wenger said, "we showed the way we want to play and that we can play the game."
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Cygan, Touré, Clichy; Pires (Fabregas, 80), Vieira, Edu (Flamini, 61), Reyes; Bergkamp (Van Persie, 80), Henry. Substitutes not used: Senderos, Almunia (gk).
Crystal Palace (4-4-1-1): Kiraly; Boyce, Hall, Sorondo, Granville; Routledge (Lakis, 64), Riihilati (Leigertwood, 32), Soares, Hughes; Freedman (Kolkka, 64); Johnson. Substitutes not used: Speroni (gk), Borrowdale.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).
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