Arsenal 4 Charlton 0
Arsenal moved back into the top four of the Premiership tonight thanks to the return of their French talisman Thierry Henry.
The Arsenal captain, playing his first match since being sidelined with a sciatic nerve problem at the end of November, opened the scoring for the Gunners from the penalty spot and was heavily involved in goals for defender Justin Hoyte and two for Dutch striker Robin van Persie.
The first-half goals left Charlton entrenched in the bottom three of the Premiership and handed Alan Pardew his first defeat since taking over as manager of the stricken Addicks.
Arsenal had not actually been that poor without Henry’s services – losing just one league game out of the seven he had missed and scoring 15 times into the bargain.
But the Frenchman celebrated Arsenal’s first game of the new year at the Emirates Stadium in some style as Arsene Wenger’s side moved to within a point of Liverpool.
Charlton, despite picking up four points out of a possible six since Pardew replaced Les Reed as manager, spent much of the game enduring a damage limitation exercise.
They were hampered prior to the game by the loss of their England striker Darren Bent, who is likely to miss the next six weeks of the season with a knee injury.
But their task was made even more insurmountable by the red card handed out to right-back Osei Sankofa who tugged back Van Persie and gave Henry the chance to put the Gunners ahead from the penalty spot on the half-hour.
Arsenal should have gone ahead in the 11th minute but Charlton’s Bryan Hughes headed Van Persie’s effort off the line and then Scott Carson, who had a busy but commendable night, pulled off a superb save to deny Cesc Fabregas at the near post.
But the warning signs kept on coming with the mercurial Henry revelling in his return and the space afforded him by a Charlton defence that appeared mesmerised by his trickery.
In the 14th minute it was Carson’s left-hand upright which kept the Frenchman off the scoresheet when his deft header from a Fabregas cross had beaten the Charlton goalkeeper.
But Henry did not squander the penalty that came Arsenal’s way in the 30th minute.
Fabregas’ deflected shot bounced back off the crossbar and as Van Persie looked to poke home the rebound, Sankofa held him back on the edge of the six-yard box.
Referee Mike Riley had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and waving the red card in Sankofa’s face. The Frenchman duly despatched the penalty as if he had never been away.
He almost added to his tally six minutes before the end of the half when a typically accurate free-kick was prevented from finding its way into the roof of the net by an acrobatic Carson.
But Henry was the mastermind behind their second goal seconds from the end of first-half stoppage time.
Hoyte cut in from the right and his pass to Henry on the edge of the box was returned into the full-back’s path, and the young Englishman slipped the ball beyond Carson.
It was the first goal in the Premiership by an Englishman in Arsenal colours since Sol Campbell headed a brace in a win over Everton in September 2005.
If Carson thought he had had a busy time in the opening half, then he was mistaken as 10-man Charlton found themselves on the back foot time and again.
Henry was again the instigator of all Arsenal’s best moves – setting up the willing Fabregas to force Carson into another super save in the 65th minute.
Four minutes later Henry thought he had claimed a brace on his return but Carson again denied him as he attempted to curl his right-foot shot from 18 yards into the top corner.
But the third goal, inevitable as it was, arrived in the 75th minute and once more it arrived courtesy of a penalty.
This time Charlton’s Souleymane Diawara was the culprit when he found Henry’s quick feet to awesome to deal with and pulled him to the floor with a tackle that would have graced Twickenham rather than the Emirates.
The only surprise was that Henry handed the ball to Van Persie to put them three up.
The final nail in Charlton’s coffin was supplied by Van Persie. He notched his second of the night in the last minute thanks to a superb through-ball from substitute Mathieu Flamini.