Pires strikes to hand Arsenal victory

Southampton 0 Arsenal 1

Southampton 0 Arsenal 1

Robert Pires pounced in the first half as Arsenal concluded the 2003 Barclaycard Premiership fixture list with a deserved victory over Southampton, slashing Manchester United’s lead at the top of the table to a single point.

The Gunners entered tonight’s clash at St Mary’s looking to preserve their 18-match unbeaten league run and that record was never realistically threatened by a toothless Saints outfit.

In contrast to the home side’s lack of creativity, Arsenal oozed class in attack – their movement and passing left Saints floundering at times – with the only surprise being their failure to reflect their dominance with a more emphatic scoreline.

That was partly thanks to the dogged resistance shown by Gordon Strachan’s men - they were stretched throughout as Pires and Freddie Ljungberg poured forward but refused to cave in – and a fine display from Saints keeper Antti Niemi.

They could do little to prevent Pires’ 35th minute strike, however, with the France midfielder combining superbly with Henry to claim his seventh Premiership goal and Arsenal’s 13th league triumph of the season.

The result was sweet revenge for last term’s 3-2 defeat at St Mary’s, a match which saw England defender Sol Campbell sent off, and made it the Gunners’ third consecutive victory over Southampton.

Before the Christmas schedule Saints were sat in fourth place and in the hunt for the Premiership’s last available Champions League spot but two defeats in four days has seen them slip down the pecking order.

They were never really in tonight’s match and that was obvious from the start as Arsenal caught the eye with a surging run into the box from skipper Patrick Vieira while moments later Kolo Toure tested Antti Niemi from 20 yards out.

Ljungberg found himself swamped in the penalty area by a posse of Saints defenders after Dennis Bergkamp had played him through and the Gunners threatened briefly in the eighth minute thanks to some neat work between Henry and Ray Parlour.

Saints enjoyed a rare attacking opportunity four minutes later with Kevin Phillips forcing Jens Lehmann into action but Arsenal responded in fine style when Henry forced a superb save from Niemi.

Bergkamp nodded into the side-netting after being set up by Henry’s pinpoint cross – he should at least have tested Niemi – and long-range shots from Parlour and Pires further increased the pressure on Saints

Pires was proving a menace down the left flank while Vieira and Parlour were in full control in midfield, but Saints’ dogged resistance meant the visitors did not have it all their own way.

Southampton had forced their way back into the match and the clutch of opportunities which had marked Arsenal’s early dominance began to dry up with even Henry hitting a speculative shot which sailed harmlessly off target.

But in their haste to capitalise on their hard-won parity, Saints left themselves exposed at the back in the 35th minute and Arsenal pounced with ruthless efficiency when Henry fed an unmarked Pires and the French midfielder fired home.

A defensive error from Pascal Cygan almost let Phillips in two minutes after the restart but the former Sunderland striker was unable to fully capitalise on the mistake.

At the other end Henry blasted a fine free-kick inches over the crossbar and Ljungberg prompted a magnificent stop from Niemi following a fluffed clearance from Danny Higginbotham as Arsenal regained their stranglehold on the match.

Saints boss Gordon Strachan replaced French starlet Leandre Griffit with Brett Ormerod in the 57th minute to give his side more punch up front, but the change had little immediate effect as Arsenal continued to dominate.

Ljungberg was denied by Niemi once again as the Gunners went in search of the second goal which would effectively end Saints’ slim hopes of finishing the game with some reward for their efforts.

A spat between Lehmann and Phillips ensued after the final whistle – Lehmann took exception to a challenge from Phillips and threw the ball at him – but referee Steve Dunn declined to take any action.

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