By Richard Clarke
Arsenal are starting to set the pace in the race for fourth spot in the Premiership.
This 3-0 stroll in the Highbury sunshine was enough to lift Arsène Wenger's side back into the leading quartet for the first time since December 3.
Tottenham had an immediate chance to recapture the position they have held for most of 2006. Their game at Birmingham started 30 minutes after this one ended. But, for two hours at least, Arsenal had achieved the main aim of the remaining campaign.
In truth, a third successive League victory was never in doubt against a lacklustre Charlton. Robert Pires sidefooted a simple opener in the13th minute. Emmanuel Adebayor, errant on two occasions early on, then scored with a more difficult opportunity. Alexander Hleb completed the scoring by crashing home a third just after the re-start.
Charlton created nothing the entire afternoon. On the balance of play, this game could be described as a "rout", even if the number of goals involved does not normally merit the term.
Arsenal - fluent, efficient and ruthless - seem to be hitting top form at just the right time.
Arsène Wenger made just one change from the side that had beaten Liverpool. Freddie Ljungberg was still out with the calf injury that had forced him off after 15 minutes last Sunday. There was a significant change on the bench. Robin van Persie was back after a broken toe had kept him out for the past six weeks.
North London had been miserably cold all week but, by kick-off, Highbury was swathed in sunlight. Arsenal's hopes of re-entering the top four had been looking similarly bright in recent weeks. That run would never be in real danger this afternoon.
Adebayor spurned two superb fine chances to put the home side ahead in the opening minutes. First, he robbed Chris Perry but could not beat Thomas Myhre from eight yards. Then, he profited from a stumble by Jonathan Spector and went clear once more. The Togolese striker had so many options that he struggled to decide which one he should take. He dithered for so long that Spector had time to chase back and poke the ball away from Adebayor's legs and behind for a corner.
That was swung over from the right and found Adebayor once more. His header was firm but a few feet too high.
The wait for a goal would not be long. In 13th minute a sweeping move from the back went from Emmanuel Eboue via Alexander Hleb to Henry on the left. The captain exchanged passes with Adebayor, jinked his way to the byline and cut the ball back for Pires to sidefoot home from close range. It was his ninth goal of the season and his fifth in the Premiership.
Early goals are always crucial to a confidence side like Arsenal and they should have extended their lead once or twice in the next 10 minutes. As ever, Henry was at the centre of everything.
First, he collected a raking pass from the right, performed an audacious drag back that caused Hermann Hreidarsson and Luke Young to slip over but prodded his shot over the bar from six yards.
Then, in the 20th minute, he curled a cross to the far post and Adebayor's firm, downward header fell inches past the post. Five minutes after that he curled a free-kick on to the roof of the net as a statutesque Myhre stood motionless on the line.
It was all Arsenal. Charlton had offered virtually nothing to this point, apart from a couple of quick breaks that were curtailed by an offside flag.
A second seemed inevitable. It arrived in the 32nd minute. Henry received to the ball on the edge of the area with his back to goal. He flicked the ball though for Adebayor but Hreidarsson intercepted. However the ball managed to escape under his feet and the gangly Arsenal striker tumbled through to score. It was his third goal in only his seventh game for the Club - a decent return for a striker new to English football.
The dominance continued until the break. But the closest they came to extending their lead was when Fabregas nearly squeezed a deflected shot past Myhre at the near post.
It would take just five minutes to rectify that once the game restarted. Hleb drove through midfield and, after Adebayor had seen two shots charged down, the Belarusian lashed the ball home from 12 yards. It was only the second goal of his Arsenal career.
Within seconds, Charlton created the first real chance of the game. Unfortunately substitute Shaun Bartlett seemed as surprised as anyone to see a cross from the left land at his feet. Jens Lehmann managed to clutch onto the ball away from the South African striker.
But normal service was soon resumed. Just before the hour, Pires fired an inquisitive shot across the face of Myhre's goal and then Henry teased the Charlton defence before curling an effort wide.
With 23 minutes left, Van Persie and Dennis Bergkamp came on for Hleb and Adebayor. Alexandre Song came on for Fabregas a little later. The game petered out as a result but the pattern of play changed little.
Arsenal were in utter control - as they had been all afternoon.
Adebayor on the charge
Adebayor challenges Perry for the ball
Adebayor scores the second goal
The team celebrates
Henry cruises past Perry
Hleb shows his close control
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- Hleb 68 Goal!
- Fabregas 78
- Pires Goal!
- Adebayor 68 Goal!
- Song 78
- Persie 68
- Bergkamp 68
- Young 74 Yellow Card
- Thomas 65
- Hughes 46
- Powell 74
- Holland 65
- Bartlett 46