If Gordon Strachan's planned sabbatical is hastened by the Southampton chairman, Rupert Lowe, this morning he will take with him his sense of humour and a burning feeling of injustice.
Strachan should be going out on a high after impressive results at Manchester United and Arsenal but, having been narrowly and controversially defeated at Old Trafford at the weekend, Southampton suffered again at Highbury last night.
A spirited performance by a depleted side went unrewarded, Strachan's side undone by a combination of Theirry Henry's genius and officialdom's incompetence.
Henry's 31st-minute opening goal, his 100th in the Premiership, looked offside. His second, in injury-time, came with the Saints' central defender Danny Higginbottom prone in midfield after being elbowed by Ray Parlour. That, said Strachan, reflected poor refereeing but the former, he hinted, had more sinister origins.
Strachan would not be drawn on his future, he is thought about to be replaced by Glenn Hoddle, a prospect which had Saints fans waving hurriedly-made placards reading "No to Hoddle". He appeared, though, to be speaking with the freedom of a man who knows he will soon be out of the Football Association's reach when he suggested the errant linesman, Mike Tingey, was biased against him.
"When I was at Coventry Mr Tingey accused me of starting a fight at Chelsea," Strachan said. "I took a lawyer to the hearing. Mr Tingey said he saw it clearly. He didn't know there was a camera which both showed I didn't start a fight, and it was impossible for him to see me. He was embarrassed five years ago and we've had history since then and my teams have suffered."
Strachan added that he had not had the opportunity to discuss the goals with referee Neale Barry as he was swamped by security at the final whistle. "If next time I'm in London I get mugged I hope the same amount of people turn up. There were six police, four stewards, and probably a UN peace inspector."
Arsène Wenger, while relieved at his side's victory, and full of praise for Henry, had his own irritant: the Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz. The former Manchester United assistant manager yesterday said he wanted Henry to become his latest "galactico". He can wish. Henry is unlikely to leave adoring Highbury. All the same, Wenger would rather he was not so crudely tempted. "If I want a player from Real Madrid I call them first, not the newspapers," he said. "I would expect a bit more class from Madrid."
There was plenty from Henry. His century has taken just 160 matches and the clinical finishes, and all-round command, justified Strachan's comment that "a player comes around every 10 years that's special and he's that." Wenger added: "When you think of his age and the speed of his improvement... it is phenomenal."
Southampton lost 6-1 at Highbury last May, and were so supine when the teams met in December Strachan afterwards said: "You could smell the fear in the first 45 minutes."
The early indications were that they were about to stink the place out again as Robert Pires, scorer of seven goals in his last six outings against Saints, twice spurned clear chances. Southampton, however, produced a spunky response and might have had a penalty when Kolo Touré's tackle just dispossessed Brett Ormerod. Driven on by Graeme Le Saux they matched Arsenal until Pires slid a pass into the familiar inside-left channel for Henry to chase. Henry was offside but Tingey kept his flag down. Henry rode Darren Kenton's despairing tackle and clipped the ball past Antti Niemi.
Saints persevered, Ormerod bringing a sharp save from Jens Lehmann soon after the break. Encouraged, Strachan went for broke, fielding four forwards. Then, with Higginbottom down, Arsenal counter-attacked. Parlour, who should have put the ball out having been the guilty party, released Pires to set up Henry for goal number 101. Saints, including a suddenly recovered Higginbottom, were incensed but to no avail. They were left nursing a grievance, Arsenal a five-point Premiership lead. The onus is now on Manchester United who play Middlesbrough tonight.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann 5; Lauren 7, Touré 6, Campbell 6, Cole 7; Parlour 4, Gilberto 4, Vieira 5, Pires 7; Reyes 3 (Clichy 5, 74), Henry 8. Substitutes not used: Stack (gk), Cygan, Edu, Bentley.
Southampton (4-4-2): Niemi 5; Kenton 4, M Svensson 6, Higginbottom 5, Crainey 5; Telfer 6, Delap 5, A Svensson 5 (Baird 4, 27; Beattie, 81), Le Saux 8 (Pahars, 82); Ormerod 7, Phillips 6. Substitutes not used: Smith (gk), Hall.
Referee: N Barry (Roxby) 5.
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