Arsenal responded to the challenge of their strongest pre-season opposition to date by producing their best performance.
They swept aside Utrecht 3-0 at Bad Waltersdorf on Tuesday thanks to a twice-taken penalty by Robert Pires, Jose Antonio Reyes's exquisite cross-shot and Henry's simple third. But it was not the goals that stood out tonight it was more the fluency, the touch and the pace of their play. It suggests the team are starting to hit their stride.
Make no mistake, this game represented a significant step up from Arsenal's previous pre-season opposition. With due respect, Barnet and two semi-pro Austrian outfits had offered little challenge up to this point but Utrecht were likely to be different.
They have been Uefa Cup regulars in recent seasons, albeit without ever threatening to win the Dutch title. In the past the club had produced internationals such as Jan Wouters and Hans van Breukelen while arguably the greatest player in their country's history, Marco van Basten, was born in the town. They were certainly well-supported tonight in this tiny spa town east of Graz.
Another Dutch legend nearly punished Utrecht in the opening two minutes. Dennis Bergkamp controlled a low cross from the right and, in trademark fashion, curled a shot towards to top corner only for Grandel to palm the ball aside.
Arsenal were playing their strongest side so far in pre-season. It showed. They had joy down both flanks through Alex Hleb and Freddie Ljungberg while Pires tucked into central midfield alongside triallist Alex Song.
It was the Frenchman who sparked the move for the opening goal in the 13th minute. Pires' angled ball between the two centre backs to send Ljungberg scampering into the area. Edson Braafheid hauled down the Swede and in a competitive game would have been dismissed. Quite rightly the referee merely pointed to the spot on this occasion.
Grandel dived low to his left to save from Pires but the official had spotted some encroachment. The keeper chose the same side for the re-take, Pires place the ball the opposite way.
Arsenal were looking increasingly confident with Hleb's fast feet particularly eye-catching. Utrecht's first noteworthy effort came in the 35th minute when Darl Douglas darted inside from the right flank and fired just over.
The Dutch side nearly scored again a minute later however this time it would have been in their own net. Under pressure from Ljungberg, David di Tommaso nearly nodded the ball over his own keeper. At the last second, Gramdel stretched out an arm to divert it wide.
Three minutes before the break, Arsenal went even closer. Bergkamp's free-kick from the left was guide goalward by Henry's head. It bounced off the post and back into the crowded area before Utrecht managed to clear.
Pires did plant the ball in the net on the stroke of half time from Bergkamp's deflected backheel. However the assistant linesman had already flagged for offside.
Wenger made only four changes at the break, two less than usual. One of the new arrivals, Jose Antonio Reyes, struck and excellent second nine minutes after the break. He raced onto David Bentley's pass in the right channel, skipped around the challenge of his marker and curled a delightful shot into the far corner.
Two minutes later, only a sharp save from Gramdel stopped Reyes scoring again when he met Henry's low cross with a first-time shot to the near post.
The front two continued to look lively, weaving patterns of passes around (and sometimes through) the Utrecht defence. In the 77th minute Henry added a third by sweeping home Eboue's cut back from the right.
With five minutes left, Rick Uruys whistled a free-kick just wide of Mark Howard's left-hand post. It was about as close as they had come all game and therefore proved the quality of Arsenal's performance this evening.
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