London: Robert Pires and Jermaine Pennant fired hattricks to help Arsenal demolish Southampton 6-1 on Wednesday in a dress rehearsal for next week’s FA Cup final. But a rueful Arsene Wenger was left to regret that his side’s rampant performance would no longer count for anything in the Premier League title race.
The former champions’ hopes of retaining their crown ended with a 2-3 home defeat by Leeds United on Sunday that handed Manchester United the trophy.
“I’m still convinced (that) if we had beaten Leeds on Sunday we would have won the championship,” Wenger said. “The players regret that we still could have been champions on Sunday.”
Both Arsenal and Southampton fielded under-strength teams in what was effectively a meaningless encounter.
Wenger gave 19-year-old Ryan Garry his Premier League debut, while Southampton manager Gordon Strachan left top strikers James Beattie and Brett Ormerod on the bench.
Pires opened the floodgates in the ninth minute after shooting from a tight angle into the top right hand corner of Paul Jones’ net, before Pennant, scoring his first goals for the club, added strikes on 16 and 19 minutes.
Pires scored again on 23 and three minutes later Pennant completed his hattrick with a powerful drive from 20 metres.
Jo Tessem pulled one back for the visitors 10 minutes before the break but the respite was brief and Pires added his third with a sublime looping shot soon after the re-start.
Wenger was pleased with the performances of the youngsters in his side, singling out Garry for special praise on his debut.
He said Pennant, who was recently sent home from an England under-21 trip to Portugal, still needed nurturing by the club to help him mature as a person and a player.
“The game went out to him and it shows he has a right to be there,” Wenger said. “It’s difficult to find the talent that he has. At the moment, he is going through a difficult period where he is still growing up mentally.”