Vol. 4 Num 213 Wed. December 31, 2003  

Pires the difference

Robert Pires seventh goal in six meetings with Southampton was enough to see Arsenal maintain their unbeaten record in the Premiership this season as they came out 1-0 winners here on Monday against an understrength home side.

The Frenchman's first-half effort - his seventh of the season in the Premiership and 10th overall - settled a disappointingly one-sided affair where the Saints failed to muster one shot in the second-half and saw Arsenal move to within a point of leaders Manchester United.

Pires has proved to be Southampton's nemesis in the past three meetings scoring a hat-trick in their last Premiership clash and then the only goal in the FA Cup final last term.

"I like playing this team. I am their bogeyman," grinned Pires.

Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger was content to have maintained the pressure on United.

"It was a well done job," the Frenchman said.

"We didn't win by more because their keeper made some good saves."

Wenger also insisted he would not be flashing the cheque book in the transfer window which opens in January.

"No I'm not not atall going to buy.

"If you look at the players we have out and in the team at the moment I think we have a strong enough squad."

Thierry Henry wasn't totally satisfied with the performance.

"We could have done better," said Henry, who set up Pires for the goal.

"Still it is very important to keep the race tight and not lose points now."

However Saints handler Gordon Strachan accused his players of running scared and warned them they could be harmed by that performance for the rest of their lives.

"It is the first time ever since I have been here that we looked like we were scared of the opposition.

"We should be able to bottle that smell of fear.

"I told the players you must remember that game for the rest of your life and how you embarrassed yourselves in front of a record crowd (32,151).

"I told them it could be a good game for your career as it will make you buck up or a bad game for your career when that's it for you as a player here and you will make your way down the leagues."

Freddie Ljungberg came within a whisker of doubling Arsenal's advantage 10 minutes into the second period as a Southampton defender passed it inadvertently to him inside the penalty area but his rasping shot was brilliantly deflected for a corner by Antti Niemi.

Niemi had to be at his best again 10 minutes from time when he blocked Henry's low shot from outside the area and only Pires's slipping on the wet turf stopped Arsenal from scoring.

Pires had struck in the 34th minute after a slide rule pass by Henry released him free on the left and the French international's nicely taken shot gave Niemi no chance.

It was no more than the Gunners deserved as they had dominated play and Dutch ace Dennis Bergkamp should have given them the lead earlier in the first-half when on his 250th appearance for Arsenal he botched a free header when found unmarked at the far post by the irresistible Henry.

The closest Southampton came to causing worries in the Arsenal defence in the first 45 minutes was when Kevin Phillips trod on Jens Lehmann's toe while preparing for a corner - Lehmann did not forget and as the final whistle sounded the German goalkeeper childishly threw the ball at Phillips head but the referee opted to let him off.

The referee admitted later he couldn't take any action because he had blown his whistle, though Wenger as usual saw little malice in it.

"He shouldn't have done it.

"I think he was frustrated many times and was hit a few times in the air.

"He's not used to that when he played in Germany."