Pires ousts Saints

Frenchmen's strike foils fighting Southampton, and Arsenal keep FA Cup

CARDIFF: Arsenal won a tense battle with Southampton at the Millennium Satdium last night to claim the FA Cup and salvage a season of heartache after seeing the Premiership slip away. 

A first half goal by Robert Pires was enough to seal a 1-0 victory and saw Arsenal win the FA Cup for the ninth time and go just one behind Manchester United in the all-time records and become the first side since north London rivals Spurs (1980/81) to retain the cup. 

The Cup final was played inside for the frist time in its 133-year history when the FA decided to have the roof pulled across at the stadium to keep out rainstorm. 

And it turned the Millennium Stadium into a theatre of drama with the Saints seeing goalkeeper Antti Niemi stretchered off, Arsenal counterpart David Seaman - in possibly his last game - pulling off a brilliant save to prevent one last gasp equaliser and the Gunners forced to desperately defend their lead until the final whistle. 

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger had insisted that winning the FA Cup would be no consolation for losing the Premiership title to eternal rivals United. But he was the first out of the bench with his arms aloft when referee Graham Barber blew the final whistle. 

Saints manager Gordon Strachan sent his players into the game with an order to block out the Gunners and the tactic worked for most of the first half.  

Strachan seeking to repeat his side's 1-0 upset win over Manchester United in the 1976 final, produced the only selection surprise of the match when he gave right back Chris Baird only his second start in four games for Southampton. 

And Arsenal star Thierry Henry soon had Baird and the other Saints defender under pressure. 

Within 20 seconds of referee Graham Barber starting the game Henry had burst through with Claus Lundekvam tugging at his shirt and Southampton goalkeeper Niemi made a nervous first save. 

After seven minutes, Niemi could not hold another Henry effort and Baird made his mark by clearing Dennis Bergkamp's follow up effort off the goal line. 

Southampton only eased the pressure in the ninth when Michael Svensson forced Seaman into his first save. That allowed Saints to get into the game. 

The Swedish international had Arsenal in trouble again five minutes later with a volley that went narrowly wide.  

Arsenal broke the deadlock with 37 minutes gone with classic pressure on the Southampton goal. 

Henry and Bergkamps had efforts blocked, Freddie Ljungberg's shot was poorly cleared and Pires came in from the left to shoot the ball into the net. 

Southampton's next stroke of bad luck came when Finnish international Niemi collapsed to the ground after taking an offside free kick and had to be stretchered off. 

Welsh international Paul Jones came on his place and was soon plunged into the heart of action when Henry came clattering toward him with Micheal Svensson at his side. 

Henry plunged to the ground from Svensson's challenge and with a choice between welcoming Jones to the game with a penalty kick or punishing Henry -- referee Barber booked the Arsenal striker for diving. 

Then, the finale, Brett Omerod's left foot shot seemed to be goalbound but Seaman, on the goalline, pulled off a brilliant reflex save. 

In the final seconds of injury time James Beattie produced a header that also seemed destined for the goal. But Ashley Cole blocked the ball with his left knee and Arsenal hung on for a desperately wanted victory. 

"We were so determined to win," said Seaman, who may have played his last match as first choice goalkeeper and was captain for the day. 

"We could just not afford to end the season without a trophy," added man-of-the-match Henry.--AFP.

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