By Chris Harris
A goal in either half from Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey was enough for Arsenal Ladies to beat Charlton, clinch their third successive title and confirm their status as the dominant force in the English women's game.
Smith rounded off a slick passing move after 21 minutes and then set up Yankey with a quickly-taken free kick in the closing stages as Vic Akers' side secured another Premier League crown with a game to spare.
Arsenal withstood a late Charlton rally and Emma Byrne saved Casey Stoney's penalty when there was just one goal separating the sides, but in truth the margin of victory could easily have been greater. Jayne Ludlow and Yankey were denied by the woodwork and Pauline Cope was by far the busier of the two keepers, producing a string of fine saves to keep her side in the game.
After losing the League Cup Final to Charlton, Arsenal have exacted revenge in style, beating their London rivals to a place in the FA Cup Final before ending their title hopes. A Double is still on the cards for Akers' impressive team.
With so much at stake, a scrappy start was to be expected and that's exactly what a sizable crowd at Meadow Park got. As Faye White predicted before the game, Charlton made it a battle in the early stages. As White had hoped, Arsenal rose to the challenge.
Biting into tackles all over the pitch, the home side matched Charlton for strength. Chances were at a premium though. Byrne plunged to save from Maria Bertelli and Ludlow's towering header was tipped onto the bar by Cope.
It was all about graft - not craft - for a good 20 minutes, but the game changed as the first half reached its halfway mark.
Champ clattered into Gemma Ritchie on the touchline and she hobbled off clutching her face. With Charlton a player down a few yards of space suddenly appeared on the pitch and Arsenal took full advantage. A fluid move involving Lianne Sanderson and Ludlow ended with a pass inside to Smith, who controlled instantly and found the bottom corner from 12 yards.
If Charlton felt hard done by then, they were even more aggrieved a few minutes later when White thundered into Michelle Hickmott as Eniola Aluko's cross flew across the box. The referee - a Mr C Henry - was unmoved. Trust an Henry to have his say on an Arsenal game.
Either way, Smith's goal made it a far better spectacle. That was especially true for Arsenal fans, who saw their team carve out the better openings. Seven minutes before the break Smith saw her shot blocked and, as the ball ricocheted around the Charlton box, Yankey smashed a volley against the bar. The ball rebounded to Smith but she could only head wide.
Sarah Snare, on as a substitute, lashed a shot wide at the other end but it was a rare chance for the visitors as Arsenal went for the kill. White was next to go close, latching onto Anita Asante's chipped pass before forcing a save from Cope early in the second half. Then Yankey's surge into the box was ended by a last-ditch challenge. Shortly after, Ciara Grant fired a long-range effort just over the angle of post and bar.
You sensed that Arsenal would have to deal with at least one spell of sustained pressure and, sure enough, it arrived with a little over 15 minutes to go. After a string of corners which White and company dealt competently with, Byrne was called into action. She passed the test with flying colours.
First, the Irish keeper parried Stoney's penalty and beat her former team-mate to the rebound after Aluko had been sandwiched by two Arsenal defenders. Then Byrne pushed aside Amanda Barr's fierce shot after the England striker had muscled her way through. Byrne completed a hat-trick of top-class stops when Donnique Sinclair-Chambers was denied.
The visitors continue to press but, as they committed players forward, gaps appeared on the break. And it was from one counter-attack that Arsenal won a free kick, 22 yards out with three minutes remaining. With Charlton napping, Smith found Yankey and her shot found the net despite Cope's valiant effort to keep it out.
That was that. Charlton's resistance was over and the final whistle sparked unconfined joy among the Arsenal ranks. On the sidelines, Vic Akers looked on as his eighth title was confirmed - not many managers can match that haul.
Kelly Smith nets our opener
Kelly celebrates her strike
Anita Asante joins in!
Sanderson and Smith embrace
The party starts at the final whistle
"We are the Champions!"
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