By Chris Harris
Four-nil? This could have been anything. Arsenal may have ended 2006 in the doldrums but they started the New Year in style with arguably their most comprehensive victory of the season.
Thierry Henry was the architect on his long-awaited return to the side. The captain rolled in a first-half penalty after Osei Sankofa had been sent off for hauling down Robin van Persie. With their opponents reduced to 10 men, Arsenal ran riot.
Justin Hoyte collected Henry's cute pass to score his first goal for the club on the stroke of half-time. Robin van Persie lashed home another penalty 15 minutes from time after the skipper had been brought down and the Dutchman grabbed his second in the closing seconds.
Still, the home fans will have left Emirates Stadium wondering how Charlton kept the score down. Philippe Senderos and Henry saw efforts cleared off the line, Tomas Rosicky and Henry hit the post and Scott Carson was outstanding in the Addicks goal.
This win takes Arsenal above Bolton and into fourth place, while they remain unbeaten at their new home. In his programme notes, Arsène Wenger wrote of his desire to "get 2007 off to a great start". He got exactly what he wanted.
If Arsenal supporters needed a pick-me-up after Saturday's depressing defeat at Sheffield United, news of Henry's return was the perfect tonic. Niggling injuries had restricted the captain to a watching brief for the previous eight games. He certainly cut a dash on the touchline in that black overcoat but it was good to see him back in red and white.
Henry was one of three changes from the side which lined up at Bramall Lane. Cesc Fabregas, a substitute at the weekend, returned to central midfield and Alex Hleb shrugged off a shin problem to take his place on the flank. Out went Mathieu Flamini, Jeremie Aliadiere and the injured Julio Baptista.
Arsenal struggled to find their rhythm on a sticky, uneven surface at Bramall Lane; on the Emirates carpet it's a different matter. Their passing and movement was significantly slicker from the first whistle.
Dennis Rommedahl fired the opening salvo - or rather a blank - after just 26 seconds but Charlton were soon on the back foot. After revving up their engine, Arsenal went into overdrive in the 10th minute. Van Persie found Hleb on the right, he returned the favour and the Dutchman's snap shot was deflected wide. Senderos met the resulting corner with a firm header but his effort was nodded off the line.
Charlton didn't have time to pause for breath. Seconds later Hleb's crossfield pass found Van Persie lurking inside the box. He lifted the ball cleverly over his marker and into the path of Fabregas. The Spaniard's shot was fiercely struck but Carson demonstrated just why Wenger raved about him this week with a brilliant reflex save.
Fabregas was finding his range in the middle of the park too. His understanding with Henry is one of Arsenal's most potent weapons and on 13 minutes they combined again. Fabregas' floated pass picked out the Frenchman's run but his downward header struck the outside of the post.
Charlton stemmed the flow for a while but they were pretty much toothless without the injured Darren Bent. The England striker has scored more than half of the Addicks' Premiership goals this season and, while Marcus Bent worked manfully as a lone striker, Rommedahl's pace and unpredictability was the only support he received.
If Charlton's prospects looked slim at that point, they diminished even further just before the half-hour mark. Rosicky found Fabregas just outside the area and his hopeful shot looped up off a defender. Carson backpedalled and managed to tip the ball against the bar but the keeper was stranded as Van Persie raced in to convert the rebound. The Dutchman never got there. Sankofa bundled Van Persie to the ground, Mike Riley pointed to the spot and rubbed salt in Charlton's wounds by sending the defender off.
Henry rolled in the spot kick and, grinning from ear to ear, he jogged to the sidelines to embrace Adebayor - a mirror image of the Togolese's celebration after scoring in last month's North London derby.
After easing himself into the game, the Arsenal captain was now in full flow. Six minutes from half time he was right on the button with a curling free-kick from his optimum position, left of centre and 25 yards out. Carson proved his worth yet again with a flying tip-over.
The on-loan Liverpool keeper had kept his side in it but another goal seemed inevitable. It duly arrived but from the most unlikely of sources. Hoyte, an effervescent presence throughout, burst down the right and found Henry in the inside-right channel. The captain clipped a perfectly-weighted return into Hoyte's path and he sidefooted past Carson. It was his first senior goal for Arsenal and few strikes have been celebrated as joyfully. What's more it was now effectively game over.
The 10 men showed signs of life at the start of the second half and Darren Ambrose forced Jens Lehmann into a low save. But it was only a temporary reprieve for Charlton. Before long they were under siege.
Rosicky was the next to go close. Henry's wayward pass was deflected into the Czech international's path and his low shot bounced off the outside of the post. Then Hleb burst through after another flowing move and squared for Henry to roll the ball into an empty net. The captain was behind the ball when it was played to him but an offside flag cut short his celebrations.
The one-way traffic continued. Van Persie was next to waltz through a bewildered Addicks back line. He left Carson on the floor and picked out Henry again. This time a defender cleared off the line. Then Carson denied Rosicky with a good block and dived full length to push out yet another Henry effort. It wouldn't be stretching the truth to say that the skipper could have had five or six goals himself.
Henry's generosity cost him one chance to add to his tally. With 15 minutes left Souleymane Diawara pulled down the Arsenal captain and, as is customary when he is fouled in the box, Henry passed the responsibility to a team-mate. Van Persie strode forward to find the top corner.
A flurry of substitutions gave Denilson, Aliadiere and Flamini some time on the pitch but the chances dried up until Flamini found Van Persie in stoppage time and the Dutchman lifted the ball over Carson and into the net. It was no more than Arsenal deserved.
- Hoyte Goal!
- Fabregas 82
- Silva 70
- Rosicky 77
- Henry Goal!
- Persie Goal! Goal!
- Flamini 70
- Denilson 82
- Aliadiere 77
- Diawara Yellow Card
- Sankofa Red Card
- Ambrose 63
- Hughes 32
- Faye 77
- Fortune 32
- Kishishev 77
- Thomas 63