Arsenal 2 Southampton 0
No wonder that Thierry Henry has been unveiled as Real Madrid’s top transfer target. No wonder, too, that Arsenal will not sell him at any price.
Henry revealed the 100th – and indeed 101st – reason why Arsenal are determined to hang onto their prized asset as he reached his Premiership century of goals against Southampton to take the Gunners five points clear at the top of the table.
Having scored his first league against Southampton in September 1999, it was against the same club that he became the 11th player – and the second overseas star after Dwight Yorke – to pass his hundred.
It was a landmark achieved amid considerable controversy, given that the Frenchman looked clearly offside as he latched onto Robert Pires’ through-ball on 31 minutes.
Indeed, Southampton were also still complaining at a perceived foul on Danny Higginbotham in the build-up to his second strike in the final minute.
However, the Frenchman still finished both chances with aplomb and however highly prized he may be in Spain, he is simply revered in north London.
Gordon Strachan deserved so much better. It was bad enough that Glenn Hoddle was being lined up as Southampton’s potential new coach, possibly as early as next week.
However, if this was to be the Scot’s last game in charge of the club he has managed so ably, then it was a night of sheer frustration as he again impersonated a fizzing firework on the touchline.
At least his side fought as a side managed by Strachan should do, giving their all but just failing to finish off their determined approach work.
Southampton had nevertheless come under immediate pressure, with Pires, who had scored seven times in his past six games against them, twice testing out Antti Niemi in the opening four minutes.
However, Strachan’s side were by no means knocked out of their stride.
Indeed, when Brett Ormerod chased onto Anders Svensson’s pass, he claimed to have been brought down in the penalty area by a combination of Kolo Toure and Jens Lehmann.
Referee Steve Bennett nevertheless ruled that Toure got a touch on the ball, while Lauren managed to head an inswinging corner by Graeme Le Saux – one of six for the visitors in the opening 20 minutes – off the line.
At this stage, with Jose Reyes largely anonymous, Henry was being starved of even half-chances and he was forced to try his luck with an ambitious half-volley over his shoulder from 20 yards out.
The visitors were, meanwhile, forced into a change after 27 minutes when Anders Svensson limped off following a challenge by Gilberto Silva to be replaced by Chris Baird.
Still Southampton pressed, although Arsenal had a huge slice of luck on their side when they finally managed to seize the lead.
It was almost inevitably Henry who scored it but the Frenchman looked clearly a yard offside as he raced onto Pires’ through-ball before nimbly holding off Darren Kenton and then beating Niemi.
Indeed, the Southampton back line were deliberately attempting to catch the striker offside as they looked along the line, only for the linesman’s flag to mysteriously remain by his side.
Some observers suggested it could be the new laws at fault, although it is hard to imagine how anyone could be adjudged not to be interfering with play if the ball is actually passed to them.
It seemed more like human error, something Reyes seemed afflicted by so early on in his adaptation process as he struck his only first-half effort wide.
Southampton were still by no means out of this encounter yet, and Ormerod was only denied by the agile reflexes of Lehmann after the restart as the German twisted to tip his effort around the post.
Baird also sent a volley spinning towards the far post but Lehmann was equal to that as well.
In an increasingly open game, Reyes just failed to make contact with Henry’s low cross at full stretch as Arsenal pressed for a second goal.
However, they could not afford to relax and, when Southampton broke swiftly, Ormerod clipped his cross-shot across the face of goal, while Pires also headed clear just in the nick of time.
While James Beattie and Marian Pahars added attacking bite, Rory Delap’s deflected shot, which flashed past the post, was the nearest that the visitors came to an equaliser.
Henry, meanwhile, may have wasted one chance to score his 101st league goal as he shot just wide, but he rarely needs more than two invitations to find the net.
Southampton were still protesting hard for a foul by Ray Parlour on Higginbotham but play was again waved on and Pires crossed for Henry to smash his shot into the far corner.
Strachan was furious, being shepherded away from referee Neale Barry at the end.
Then again, if that was the passionate Scot’s last action on a Premiership pitch, at least it was strictly in character.