Arsenal FC secured their place in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League with a fourth successive Group B victory, Thierry Henry's goal and a late double from his second-half substitute Robin van Persie proving sufficient to defeat AC Sparta Praha.
Henry, who played with great verve and invention for 66 minutes before being replaced, struck after 23 minutes with a swerving shot from just outside the penalty area. Arsène Wenger's side were always in command but did not wrap up the points - and their place in the last 16 - until eight minutes from time when Van Persie curled in a fine second, before adding gloss to the win with a third four minutes from time.
After several hours of steady rain, the surface at Highbury was invitingly fast and slippery. Arsenal, seeking victory to seal their progress, enjoyed all the early possession with Henry, recalled after missing last Saturday's English Premiership draw at Tottenham Hotspur FC, prominent with his running and energy.
Arsenal on top
Despite their dominance, however, Arsenal did not create a clear opening until the 15th minute when, after a slick combination between Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pirès crossed low from the right and the Dutchman guided a stabbed left-foot volley against the bar. Arsenal then began to flow forward freely, but Sparta showed their threat on the break when Lukáš Zelenka forced Manuel Almunia - playing in place of Jens Lehmann who was a late withdrawal with a back problem - to make a sprawling save.
The hosts continued to press and took the lead in the 23rd minute. A passing move involving several players swept from right to left, with José Antonio Reyes back-heeling into the path of Henry, who curled a beautiful 20-metre shot low beyond Jaromír Blažek and inside the left-hand post. The goal made Sparta open up and move forward; having played almost entirely in their own half until Henry's strike, they began to push their midfielders into more advanced positions and in one attack Martin Hašek fired in a solid shot from the edge of the area that Almunia could only parry.
As play became more stretched, Arsenal sought to exploit the extra room on the counterattack. Bergkamp ran from his own half for 40 metres before releasing Reyes for a left-foot effort that was pushed away by the diving Sparta goalkeeper. The effervescent Henry was providing the perfect reminder of what the Highbury faithful missed during his recent absence, drawing another diving stop from Blažek with a free-kick as the second half unfolded. The Frenchman added incisiveness to Arsenal's midfield domination; Pirès and Reyes provided thrust on the flanks and in the centre Bergkamp offered guile, but only Henry had the pace and skill to cause real danger.
Van Persie salvo
Henry was finally withdrawn after 66 minutes, but Van Persie quickly announced his arrival with a well-taken set-piece that Blažek turned away. Arsenal survived an almighty scare moments later as Adam Petrouš beat Almunia to a cross, only to watch his header drop on to the roof of the net, but the points were finally guaranteed in the 82nd minute as Van Persie collected a beautiful Bergkamp pass and bent in a shot from the edge of the box. Four minutes later another substitute, Emmanuel Eboué, created the chance for the youngster to sweep in a crowning third.