Blackburn 0 Arsenal 2: 'You've only come to see the Arsenal'

Last updated : 14 March 2004 By Chris Parry

Patrick Vieira shakes off John Douglas
Brian enjoyed a weekend away - keeping up his strength for the onslaught of games to come - and I went without my notebook, so don't expect a blow by blow report from me. Suffice to say that once again, without the brilliance that was evident last weekend at Fratton Park we managed to secure yet another three points as we march on. Generic report follows - please come home soon Brian!

Arsenal's unstoppable march towards the Barclaycard Premiership title showed no sign of slowing down at Ewood Park as they exorcised the ghost of last season with an utterly professional performance.

On this very same Saturday in 2003, Arsenal's title challenge began to falter as they were turfed aside 2-0 by Graeme Souness' side. There never appeared much chance of that happening this time.

Souness will point to a controversial decision by the referee to award a free-kick in the 57th minute that saw Thierry Henry curl home a marvellous opener.

The decision left the Blackburn boss seething but in truth, Souness' side could and should have already been behind despite a brave performance.

After the match he fumed: "It was never a free-kick. We were containing them until that point but you cannot legislate for decisions like that.

"I'm very disappointed for my players who put in a good performance. Up until that point we thought we could get something out of it."Blackburn had started the brighter, Brett Emerton's dangerous corner being met by Craig Short only for a well-positioned Ashley Cole to head off the line on just five minutes.

Emerton was in the thick of the action yet again soon after as Arsenal started sluggishly, racing away from Ashley Cole and delivering a cross that forced a full-stretch Sol Campbell to head over his own crossbar.

Souness had clearly pumped his side up in order to try and get them to compete with their illustrious visitors.

However, if Robert Pires had been a little sharper on 14 minutes they would have fallen behind as Patrick Vieira loped into the box and found his compatriot only for the Frenchman to waste the chance.

The Gunners slowly began to take charge of the game and with Vieira in imperious form, the tigerish Blackburn midfield was squeezed out. Shorn of seven senior players through injury, including key midfielders Garry Flitcroft and Barry Ferguson, Rovers struggled to gain a foothold.

Henry was finding some space in between Andy Todd and Short, first firing straight at Brad Friedel when well-placed and then his attempted quick free-kick, similar to one that came off at Aston Villa earlier in the season, flashed just wide.

Had Arsenal not won this game, questions might have been raised over the referee's decision in the 26th minute to disallow Henry's impudent goal when he flicked the ball out of Friedel's hands as the American attempted to clear.

Thierry fires his free kick home - One Nil to the Arsenal!
Soon after, some intricate passing from the visitors enabled Pires to pirouette away from Todd and curl a superb effort inches over the top.

Then, after Lucas Neill had cheaply squandered possession, Jose Antonio Reyes burst down the right before hitting a terrific shot just beyond the far post.

These chances briefly ignited Blackburn, Matt Jansen heading Neill's deep cross past the post and then Andy Cole skipping past Campbell but hitting a shot into Jens Lehmann's midriff.

In between times Henry, not noted for his heading ability, rose unmarked to meet Gilberto Silva's cross only to nod well wide of Friedel's far post.

After the break, Arsenal moved ahead in controversial fashion as Henry appeared to be clipped by Short as he tried to meet Ashley Cole's throughball.

With three sides of Ewood Park furious at the decision and Souness himself in angry conversation with the fourth official, Henry dusted himself off to sweep home a majestic opener and his 21st goal of the season.

The Gunners boss Arsene Wenger acknowledged Souness' frustration but disagreed with his opposite number. "It looked to me like a free-kick," he reflected wryly. "It looks like Short pushed Thierry (Henry).

"This was a difficult game for us although I was disappointed with Blackburn's performance. They only looked to score on the break or from set-pieces."That was due mainly to Arsenal's imperious ability to keep possession and deny their opponents the chance to play. Even though they had played twice since Blackburn last took to a Premiership field, they still appeared fresher and looked to have the capability to move up a level if required.

Andy Cole and Jansen were well-marshalled by Campbell and Kolo Toure, although Cole's ambitious but speculative overhead kick flew over the crossbar in the 68th minute.

Souness sent on Dwight Yorke in the 72nd minute to try and change the game's pattern and the switch nearly worked a treat as the ex-Manchester United man's ball skills posed new questions of the Arsenal backline.

Indeed, Blackburn should have got the equaliser on 77 minutes as Yorke fed Cole and his strike partner dragged the ball across goal only for the onrushing Jonathan Douglas to be a hairbreadth's away from connecting.

As Souness went for broke, throwing Markus Babbel into the fray as an auxiliary striker, they were hit with a sucker punch.

Pires burst down the left, played the ball inside to Vieira who picked out Gilberto in space in the box. The Brazilian's shot was turned on to the post by Friedel only for Pires to gobble up the rebound. Game over. Job done.

Wenger refused to be drawn on the title race nor the fact his team have gone a staggering 28 games without defeat in the Premiership this season merely commenting: "We need to be mentally strong.

"There is a worry the players will be physically tired as we have games every week."Nevertheless the 12-point cushion secured over fierce rivals Manchester United will certainly go far to ease Wenger's worries.

Man of the match: Patrick Vieira - Drove the Gunners forward at every opportunity and was behind many of his team's best moments.