It's a little over three years since Thierry Henry saluted his 100th goal in Arsenal's colours during a victory at St. Andrews. On Saturday he was back in Birmingham to celebrate a second century for the Gunners and - more importantly - another three points.
Henry became the first player to net 200 times for the Club when he lashed a left-foot shot past Maik Taylor shortly after the hour mark. But it wasn't the only notable milestone on a good day for the Gunners. Emmanuel Adebayor marked his debut with a goal to help secure a rare but welcome away win.
Arsenal's new signing netted just three days after arriving back from the African Cup of Nations, and Arsène Wenger must be secretly delighted that Togo didn't make it past the group stages in Egypt. His acquisition from Monaco gave Arsenal an extra dimension up front and looks like joining Wenger's long list of astute buys.
But it's not just the strikers who deserve credit for this result. Arsenal's makeshift back four included two midfielders and had an average age of less than 21, but it stood firm against the power and physical presence of Chris Sutton and Emile Heskey to keep a clean sheet.
At times like this you hear talk of being 'down to the bare bones', but even the Gunners' 'bare bones' were either injured or absent. For the record, eight defenders were ruled out: Ashley Cole (thigh), Sol Campbell (absent) Gael Clichy (foot), Pascal Cygan (hamstring), Lauren (knee), Kerrea Gilbert (back), Emmanuel Eboue and Kolo Toure (both African Nations Cup).
That gave Wenger little room for manoeuvre when he selected his back four, but it was a different story further forward where the manager had the luxury of resting Freddie Ljungberg and Robin van Persie. In came Adebayor for his debut, while Jose Antonio Reyes and Cesc Fabregas returned from suspension. Robert Pires dropped to the bench and Theo Walcott was also named among the substitutes.
Arsenal looked neat and tidy in the opening exchanges but Birmingham fashioned the better chances. The strength of Sutton and Heskey was always likely to test the visitors' fledgling defence and so it proved after just five minutes. Heskey held off Senderos on the edge of the box and, as the ball dropped inside the area, Sutton let fly with a venomous left-foot shot. Lehmann dived full length to tip the ball brilliantly past the post.
Lehmann knew far less about his next intervention, just seconds later. A corner fell to Heskey on the corner of the six-yard box and his hooked effort hit the Arsenal keeper before rolling agonisingly into the side-netting. Jiri Jarosik was next to go close, volleying Jermaine Pennant's cross into the ground and wide after Senderos misjudged a lofted ball down the right.
After weathering that early storm, Arsenal grew in confidence. Reyes broke down the left channel after 19 minutes and sent a full-blooded effort towards goal. The ball swerved slightly but Taylor got just enough behind it.
Two minutes later, the Birmingham keeper was beaten. Fabregas found Henry on the edge of the area and his instant flick found Abou Diaby's clever run on the right. His low cross hit Martin Latka and bounced up off Taylor to the lurking Adebayor, who nodded into an empty net. A strange goal, but a welcome one for Arsenal.
The game was already an entertaining affair but Adebayor's strike opened it up even more. Pennant, so determined to shine against his former club, beat Larsson to a challenge and crossed instantly for Heskey, but his header flew into the side-netting. At the other end, Reyes curved a pass into Adebayor's pass in the left channel. As he charged towards goal a second looked on the cards but the Togo striker's low effort was too weak to trouble Taylor.
After an open first half, chances were few and far between at the start of the second period, but that all changed just after the hour mark. Cesc Fabregas received the ball in midfield and played a slide-rule pass through to Henry. The Arsenal captain accelerated away from his marker with one touch and lashed a shot past Taylor to double his team's advantage and become the first player to score 200 goals for the Gunners. A magnificent achievement by a magnificent player.
Birmingham had to raise their game, and they did. With the home crowd increasingly agitated, the Blues poured forward to put pressure on Senderos and company. The Swiss defender, his compatriot Djourou and the impressive Lehmann, stood firm. Matthew Upson, another former Gunner in the Blues line-up, went close with a header. Then Heskey's hooked shot flew straight at Lehmann.
A goal for the hosts then would have set up a grandstand finish. Instead, things went from bad to worse for Birmingham. Heskey, already booked for a high challenge on Senderos, saw red for a clash with Flamini. It took the wind out of the home side's sails and ensured Arsenal would head home with a hard-fought win.
Happiness has been in short supply since that incredible 7-0 thrashing of Middlesbrough on January 14 with three defeats in four games and two cup exits. Wigan, Bolton and Blackburn - not to mention Spurs - will have something to say about it, but a top-four finish is well within Arsenal's sights.
- Larsson Yellow Card
- Diaby Yellow Card
- Adebayor Goal!
- Henry Goal! Yellow Card
- Reyes 80
- Hleb 80
- Jarosik 70
- Izzet 70
- Sutton Yellow Card
- Heskey Red Card
- Forssell 70
- Campbell 70