But big win fails to make up for failure to retain title
LONDON: Robert Pires and Jermaine Pennant fired hat-tricks to help Arsenal demolish Southampton 6-1 on Wednesday in a dress rehearsal for next week’s FA Cup final.
But a rueful Arsene Wenger was left to regret that his side’s rampant performance would no longer count for anything in the Premier League title race.
The former champions’ hopes of retaining their crown ended with a 3-2 home defeat by Leeds on Sunday that handed Manchester United the trophy.
“I’m still convinced (that) if we had beaten Leeds on Sunday we would have won the championship,” Wenger told reporters.
“The players regret that we still could have been champions on Sunday,” he added.
Both Arsenal and Southampton fielded under-strength teams in what was a meaningless encounter.
Wenger gave 19-year-old Ryan Garry his Premier League debut, while Southampton manager Gordon Strachan left top strikers James Beattie and Brett Ormerod on the bench.
Pires opened the floodgates in the ninth minute after shooting from a tight angle into the top right hand corner of Paul Jones’s net, before Pennant, scoring his first goals for the club, added strikes on 16 and 19 minutes.
Pires scored again on 23 and three minutes later Pennant completed his hat-trick with a powerful drive from 20 metres.
Jo Tessem pulled one back for the visitors 10 minutes before the break but the respite was brief and Pires added his third with a sublime looping shot soon after the re-start.
Wenger was pleased with the performances of the youngsters in his side, singling out Garry for special praise on his debut.
He said Pennant, who was recently sent home from an England Under-21 trip to Portugal, still needed nurturing by the club to help him mature as a person and a player.
“The game went out to him and it shows he has a right to be there,” Wenger said.
“It’s difficult to find the talent that he has. At the moment, he is going through a difficult period where he is still growing up mentally. It is important for the club to help him find stability in his life,” he added.
The 20-year-old Pennant, who signed for the Gunners aged just 15 but spent much of this campaign on loan to Watford, received praise from Wenger for the way he took his goals.
“He scored three goals, and took his chances well,” enthused Wenger.
“He’s not a typical goalscorer but showed he has the technical ability to play on the wing at this level.”
Wenger said he wanted to give the English Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year Thierry Henry a chance to increase his goal tally to win the Golden Boot.
Henry failed to get his name among the scorers but, along with Southampton’s Beattie, the Frenchman has 23 league goals this season, one less than United’s Ruud van Nistelrooy.
“I wanted to give him (Henry) a chance for the Golden Boot, but the best sign is that he gets the Best Player (award) because he is a provider as well as a goalscorer,” he said.
Arsenal travel to relegated Sunderland for their final league match of the season and Wenger said he wanted to use the game as an opportunity to get injured players, such as Freddie Ljungberg, back in time for the Cup final on May 17.
Strachan said he had been shocked at his side’s failure to respond to Arsenal’s goals but believed his team were still capable of winning next week’s final.
“I thought ’when are we going to compete?’” Strachan said.
“There was no tackling on that pitch. I’ve never seen goals like that in my life. But I think we can win the Cup, I genuinely do, but not by standing and watching Arsenal play.” – Reuters