By Richard Clarke
Arsenal will spend Christmas on top of the Premiership after grinding out a hard-fought 2-0 win over 10-man Middlesbrough at Highbury.
A grim North London afternoon had been barely livened by events on the pitch before Sol Campbell stooped to thunder home a header from Gio van Bronckhorst's free-kick from the left in first-half injury time.
The second half have was much-improved but we could not breach the resolute Boro defence until Pires fired home a second at the death. The visitors' hopes of a point had been all-but dashed after Luke Wilkshire was dismissed 18 minutes from time.
The three points mean we lead second-place Chelsea by two points and have a four-point advantage over Manchester United, who visit Blackburn tomorrow.
The impressive Van Bronckhorst had been a late change to the Arsenal line-up. Ray Parlour suffered a calf injury during the warm-up and so he had stepped up from the bench. Otherwise the absentees - Patrick Vieira (groin), Edu (groin), Dennis Bergkamp (knee), Pascal Cygan (calf) - were as expected.
It was the new addition who fired the first shot across Boro bows with 12 minutes gone. We started in slightly scratchy fashion but had begun to find our fluency when Van Bronckhorst thumped a left-foot shot just wide of Mark Schwarzer's left-hand post from 25 yards out. Two minutes later, the Dutchman's far-post free-kick was scooped over the bar by Sylvain Wiltord.
Three successive corners saw Boro mount the pressure after that, although they failed to manufacture a clear opportunity. However it was still poor game with neither side playing anywhere near their best.
Boro lost George Boateng midway through the half. He was replaced by Joseph-Desire Job, who was returning after fracturing his skull against West Brom three weeks ago.
Five minutes later, Freddie Ljungberg's back-flick invited Ashley Cole to scamper down the left. His curling cross seemed destined for the head of the leaping Pires however the ball skimmed off his head and the chance went begging.
We livened up a little towards the break with Henry sending a shot fizzing over the bar and Campbell nodding into the side-netting from the resulting corner.
Ljungberg also tested Schwarzer just before the break but we needed Campbell to finally show the attackers the way to score. It was his first of the current campaign.
Henry should have increased our lead just after the break. Wiltord's low curling cross from the right seemed perfect for our fast-approaching French striker to side-foot home but he got his legs in a tangle but miscued his effort.
Boro rallied but, yet again, failed to carve out anything clear cut. On the hour, Wiltord may have grabbed second when Pires charged down Schwarzer's clearance on the edge of the area and the ball ricocheted to the striker in midfield. The goal was momentarily empty but Wiltord delayed his shot too long and the chance was snuffed out.
Moments later, Wilkshire blocked Gilberto's goal-bound header on the line after our Brazilian midfielder had risen at the near post to meet Van Bronckhorst's corner.
It was the Boro defender's last significant act. He was sent off on 72 minutes after his receiving his second yellow card for a foul on Pires.
We nearly took advantage straight away but Wiltord's deflected shot was parried away by the diving Schwarzer then Pires rippled the side-netting from close range and Lauren forced the visiting keeper to tip over.
It was starting to seem like it just would not go in for us again. That was proved when Wiltord raced down the right and his cross was volleyed against the inside of the post by the gymnastic Henry. The ball bounced down across the face off goal but was scrambled away.
But then Pires defied the odds, firing home a low shot from the edge of the area in the final minute.
Light drizzle floated down on the Highbury pitch on final few minutes. It was a miserable day weather-wise but the three points and the two goals were a welcome winter-warmer.
Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source
26 May 2004
Sol dives in to score our firstSol takes a bow...His team-mates congratulate the scorerRobert Pires steers in our second goalWiltord shows his thanksRobert seals the game for ArsenalSol Campbell scores the opening goal
BUY THIS PICTURESol celebrates!
BUY THIS PICTURESylvain Wiltord and Robert Pires celebrate the second goal
BUY THIS PICTURERobert Pires celebrates
BUY THIS PICTURE