By Richard Clarke
If this game was a dress rehearsal for the FA Cup final then Arsenal were word-perfect at Highbury tonight.
Jermaine Pennant and Robert Pires struck hat-tricks as Arsène Wenger's side laid down a marker for the showpiece at the Millennium Stadium with an emphatic 6-1 win over fellow finalists Southampton.
After Pires' early opener, Pennant - making his Premiership debut - hit three goals in 10 minutes. In between those, Pires grabbed his second and completed the treble two minutes after the break to take his to tally 14 in only 20 Premiership starts after starting the season late through injury.
Jo Tessem reduced the arrears on the half hour but few at Highbury minded. This was the perfect tonic for any lingering blues since Sunday's defeat against Leeds at Highbury had ended Arsenal's title hopes.
Or to put it another way, a double hat-trick made up for just a little of that lost League and Cup double.
And, of course, a comprehensive victory such as this bodes well psychologically for that trip to Cardiff on May 17.
Wenger had been open about the team changes he was going to make for this game. Ashley Cole, David Seaman, Gilberto and Martin Keown were rested completely while Sylvain Wiltord and Dennis Bergkamp began on the bench.
It meant Pennant and Ryan Garry, in his first full game, started while Oleg Luzhny and Igors Stepanovs formed an Eastern European partnership at centre back.
Southampton nearly scored after two minutes when keeper Paul Jones' long punt out sailed over Luzhny and Tessem nearly touched the ball past Stuart Taylor. The Arsenal No 1 palmed the shot aside and Fabrice Fernandes blazed the loose ball over the bar from eight yards.
The Arsenal avalanche started in the ninth minute. Ray Parlour collected the ball in midfield and fed Kanu, who waited for his captain to burst through before returning the ball into his path. Parlour steadied himself and took aim. Jones half-blocked the shot which bounced high into the air and Pires was on hand to steer home the ball into the roof of the net from an acute angle.
Henry, whose Golden Boot adversary James Beattie was left on the Southampton bench, nearly added a second in the 13th minute. The impressive Parlour curled a pass for Henry to sprint on to and the Frenchman rounded Jones but the ball ran wide before sliding a shot into the sidenetting.
In the 16th minute, Arsenal grabbed a second. Gio van Bronckhorst steered a square ball into the path of Pennant who gleefully rifled home a shot.
It was three almost straight away. Kanu cracked a low shot that Jones turned aside. From the corner, Henry's deflected shot hit the wrong-footed keeper and Pennant nodded the ball into the empty net.
It was four straight after that. Kanu and Henry combined for Pires to thump home a right-foot shot from 12 yards.
Then five. Henry to Pennant, another low shot into the corner before celebrating with gusto in front of the Clock End. With just 25 minutes gone, Arsenal were 5-0 ahead - stirring stuff.
Tessem slid home a clever curling cross from Wayne Bridge just past the half-hour. It seemed to stem Arsenal's attacking instincts until the two teams went in for half time.
But it did not last. Two minutes after the restart, Pires pounced on the ball after Paul Telfer's slip and, having spotted Jones off his line, produced a sublime chip from over 30 yards to beat the backtracking keeper.
It was just not Southampton's night. Michael Svensson sidefooted a gentle shot over the bar soon afterward with Taylor stranded. Later, substitute Beattie spurned a simple chance to add to his impressive Premiership tally.
Just before Pires made way for Bergkamp, Kanu stung the keeper's hands from distance.
In the final few minutes Wenger threw on Stathis Tavlaridis and Justin Hoyte for their first taste of Premiership action as Arsenal held with ease.
The team did a lap of thanks after the final whistle. The Premiership may have gone but the FA Cup is a real possibility. If that game is half as entertaining as this goal-feast then roll on Cardiff.
Copyright 2017 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
Pires gets the goal-fest underway with our firstRobert celebrates with the fansPennant nets the first of his trebleJermaine salutes the crowdOne down two to go!Robert nets the teams fourthPennant celebrates his first half hat-trick
BUY THIS PICTURERobert completes his treble and Arsenal's sixth
BUY THIS PICTURE