Home form, as Arsène Wenger pointed out last week, will be the making or breaking of Arsenal's season. Highbury, where life has been peculiarly uncomfortable throughout this Premiership campaign, a familiar air of conviction returned with impeccable timing; at the stage of the season Wenger described as 'the moment of truth'.
Those home truths could have been very different given that Wenger was forced to field another makeshift team from his injury and suspension-blighted squad. The sight of two of their least reliable performers, Igors Stepanovs and Oleg Luzhny, taking the field might have put an element of doubt into Arsenal minds, but against a strangely unmotivated Fulham, it was not a problem. Their French contingent saw to that.
Never mind a matter of London pride, this was more like a French derby, with no fewer than eight of the managers' compatriots in the starting line-ups. It was first blood to Arsenal, only five minutes elapsing before Lauren finished a slick passing move. The goal might have come from Africa, but it was made, unmistakably, in France.
Robert Pires, the architect behind so much of Arsenal's creation this season, led the way with a dynamic dribble and perceptive pass to Thierry Henry. In a flash the ball was helped on to Sylvain Wiltord, who picked out Lauren's surge into the six-yard box. The Cameroon player, making his first Premiership start after a month away earning his second African Cup of Nations winner's medal, prodded in.
As is so often the case this season, Arsenal's capacity to undermine their attacking brio with lapses of defensive reason hit them where it hurt. Rufus Brevett measured a cross towards the far post, where Sol Campbell and Giovanni van Bronckhorst seemed to ball watch in slow motion, granting Steve Marlet time to light a Gitane before aiming for goal. One gentle leap and nod of the head later, the ball was nestling in the corner of David Seaman's net. That first 10 minutes encapsulated exactly why Arsenal believe they can win the league and exactly why they can throw it all away.
Optimism returned before long, as Wenger's men restored their lead when Henry, in swaggering mood, bedazzled the Fulham defence with a diagonal burst and reverse pass to Patrick Vieira, who lashed his first goal of the season past an unprotected Edwin van der Sar.
The Holland goalkeeper was exposed again when the galloping Lauren swept in another dangerous shot, but Van der Sar's smart reaction save kept Fulham in the picture. Not for long, though. Another French flourish took Arsenal into a comfort zone.
Vieira won possession with a crunching tackle, Wiltord's flick invited Henry to burn past Andy Melville and Highbury's top scorer finished with a cool drive. Wiltord ought to have been the third Frenchman to net for Arsenal, when Pires's effort was blocked and fell to his friend's feet with the goal gaping. Somehow, he scooped over the crossbar.
Rude though it is to gatecrash this French love-in, Lauren - returning to his original position of right midfield, having spent most of the season utilised at full back - was a revelation. Unshackled, he rampaged forward at will. When Pires curled the ball on to Lauren's head, he guided the ball in only to be denied by a post. Henry, following up, was almost embarrassed to claim the goal as it bounced off him and in.
Although Wiltord, Pires and Henry continued to pepper Van der Sar's goal, it was no surprise that Arsenal eased off, considering this Premiership question was sandwiched between crucial Champions League games against Bayer Leverkusen. And, to Fulham's credit, they endeavoured to minimise their blushes by searching for more goals of their own. Seaman stood firm. No late equalisers this time.
In bobsleighing parlance, this was France 1 against France 2 - a confrontation between Arsène Wenger's sophisticated troops and Jean Tigana's barmy-army. Both teams were equal in terms of Frenchmen starting the game, with four in each side and a further two per club sitting on the bench. There was no such parity in the number of goals scored, however, as Arsenal ran out comfortable winners to maintain their interest in the Premiership race.
With so many Gallic faces on show, it was perhaps inevitable that the headlines would be made in France. And so it proved, as four of the goals were scored by French internationals, while the other was netted by a French-speaking Cameroonian.
That is not to say that this was the classiest of Continental displays, but Arsenal will just be pleased to have secured the three points. Before yesterday, they had often struggled to impose themselves in matches at Highbury this season. Perhaps this is because the Gunners often sit deep, looking to play on the break like the visiting team. The ploy can be a risky one, not least because of Arsenal's continuing defensive frailties, but against Fulham they were simply too strong. "Every time we won the ball back," Wenger said, "we were dangerous. Our movement out from the back was exceptional. I'm delighted."
Nothing will have given the Arsenal manager more pleasure than the sight of one particular battle-hardened soldier coming through 90 minutes of League football. Following a lengthy lay-off due to a shoulder injury, old pony-tail was back in goal at Highbury. David Seaman, himself, will be relieved to have resumed his career, not least because his World Cup place hinges on performances in the next two months. England still need his craft and experience, but even the patient Sven Goran Eriksson can not afford to wait much longer before deciding on his first-choice goalkeeper.
Not that the 38-year-old had much to do in the opening exchanges. Just as the filthy pre-match weather was clearing, Arsenal played a delightful move to open the scoring. Fashioned in Holland and France - courtesy of a three-way interchange of passes between Giovanni van Bronkhorst, Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord - the goal was expertly tucked away by the Cameroon international Lauren. Time, the fans must have thought, for Arsenal to complete a comfortable home win.
Au contraire, mon cher Mr Wenger. Within six minutes of claiming the lead, Arsenal's often shaky defence was once again undone by the simplest of goals. Rufus Brevett was given the freedom of Highbury to launch a deep cross, which the totally unmarked Steve Marlet needed only to nod past the hapless Seaman. Game on, then.
Au contraire, mon cher Mr Tigana. The crowd had barely been given time to settle when Henry latched on to a sloppy back-pass from Brevett, before taking one touch and then executing the perfect reverse pass for Patrick Vieira. The Arsenal captain had no trouble in picking his spot from 16 yards. The home team should have gone further ahead midway through the first half after Oleg Luzhny had picked out Lauren's run at the near post. Lauren, playing in the Arsenal midfield, hit an instinctive right-foot shot, but Edwin van der Sar saved well with his legs.
The Fulham keeper could do nothing seven minutes before half-time, though, as Arsenal extended their lead thanks to a familiar source. Having guided him through the early stages of his career, Tigana knows all about Henry's ability to use his pace to turn defenders. Pity Andy Melville had not done his homework, as the League's top scorer skipped past the Welsh international and buried his shot into the bottom of the net. "He's always been an incredible talent," said Tigana, who coached Henry at Monaco in the early Nineties. "He was absolutely outstanding today."
As is so often the case when a team has a comfortable lead, Lady Luck then lent a further helping hand. Robert Pires found Lauren at the far post with a pin-point cross, which the recently crowned African Nations' champion headed over Van der Sar but on to the post. Henry was quickest to react, although he knew little about the rebound that hit his knee before hitting the back of the net. Henry accepted the plaudits, but not before shaking his head in pleasant disbelief.
Such was Arsenal's domination that they could even afford to bring on Jeremie Aliadière for his Premiership debut. The 18-year-old Frenchman was poached from his country's Federation in 1999 and is widely regarded as one of the hottest French prospects. "If you don't give a kid his chance when you are 4-1 up, then when will you do it?" Wenger asked. "He will never forget this day."
THE SUNDAY TIMES
ON THIS largely Gallic occasion, Arsenal's half a dozen Frenchmen emphatically had the better of Fulham's five.
What quickly became a stroll for Arsène Wenger's side saw the Gunners leapfrog both Liverpool and Newcastle to reclaim second place and remain three points behind the champions.
Though Fulham unexpectedly recovered from Arsenal's quick opening goal to equalise, it soon became clear that this would be an afternoon of trying to limit the damage.
As their own French manager and former France star, Jean Tigana, admitted: "We started very badly today, and I don't understand why."
The explanation might lie in the very tribute that Arsenal's own French manager, Wenger, paid to the Fulham team. "Unlike many other teams which come to Highbury, Fulham came out to play," he said. This was morally admirable, one felt, but tactically very dangerous against an Arsenal team that, despite various absences, brims over with sparkling talent.
As Tigana emphasised, Arsenal's Frenchmen, by contrast with his own, tend to be current internationals.
Of these Frenchmen, Thierry Henry, with his dynamic pace and adventurous spirit, was the decisive player on the field in an Arsenal team that put behind it a series of disappointing home games in the Premiership.
Tigana praised the player whom he managed at Monaco, which was generous of him given the fact that Henry and his fellow Monaco attacker of the time, David Trezeguet, gave Tigana a horribly hard time when he was at the club, even reading the newspaper during his team talks.
Henry, as Tigana recalled, was a winger then. The Fulham manager said: "Every day he works very, very hard. That is the difference with some players."
Arsenal went ahead as early as the fifth minute with a coruscating goal. The movement began with Giovanni van Bronckhorst, later forced off the field with a suspected cartilage injury. The ball went from him to Henry, on to Sylvain Wiltord, still another Frenchman on the left, then in for Lauren, who had adventurously come across the flanks to beat Edwin van der Sar at his near post.
Arsenal at that stage looked so overwhelmingly superior that you felt a flood of goals might result.
Instead of which, football being the tantalising game it is, what should occur but a Fulham equaliser? A very straightforward affair it was, too.
Fulham's left-back, Rufus Brevett, sent in a long cross from the left and a sleepy Arsenal defence allowed Steve Marlet, a Frenchman, of course, to head from the far post past David Seaman.
But after just 15 minutes the inspired Henry, coming in from the right, made the goal for the galloping Patrick Vieira.
We had to wait until the 38th minute before Arsenal got their third, though it had seemed only a matter of time. Receiving from Wiltord, Henry eluded the hapless Fulham centre-back Andy Melville with embarrassing ease, and ran on to beat van der Sar. Poor Melville held his head in his hands.
There could well have been another goal on 43 minutes when Henry found Robert Pirès, whose shot bounced off van der Sar, only for Wiltord to scoop over the top from point-blank range.
Fulham both began and ended the second half commendably.
On 52 minutes, Melville, perhaps seeking consolation, got his head to a free kick from the right by Steed Malbranque, but Seaman took the ball well. In the closing stages, Seaman was three times called into significant action by Fulham though by then Arsenal were already leading 4-1. There was a free kick by Marlet, a header by one substitute, Louis Saha, from a cross by another, the under-used Jon Harley, and almost at the very end, a daring plunge by Seaman to block an incursion by Marlet. None of which had much to do with the overall result.
Sixteen minutes into the second half, Vieira roared away down the left flank to find Wiltord, who was thwarted by the resilient van der Sar. But almost immediately, back came Arsenal. Robert Pirès crossed from the left, Lauren headed against a post and the ball went in off Henry. In the very next minute, Lauren advanced on the left, and Wiltord's strike was spectacularly saved by van der Sar in mid-air.
Van der Sar continued to frustrate Arsenal as best he could, blocking a shot from Henry at his near right-hand post, saving a distant drive from the right-footed Pirès, but by now, the game was decided. So much so that Wenger was able to put on yet another Frenchman, the 18-year-old Jeremie Aliadiere, in place of Henry. The manager told Henry that Aliadiere would always remember he made his Premiership debut in place of the more famous Frenchman.
Asked, meanwhile, how he could reconcile his own highly logical attack on the present system in the Worthington Cup, whereby the winners gain an automatic place in the Uefa Cup, with Arsenal's fervent support for the competition, Wenger could only reply: "I am not my club."
THE IDEA that poor home form could cost Arsenal the championship was challenged by a superbly incisive performance. Against, moreover, a team who had prevented the opposition from scoring in nearly half their previous League matches - though you would not have credited it as Fulham's defences were all but fatally breached before half-time.
While it was a predictable enough outcome - a smart-alec might say, of a contest between France A and France B - valuable support for the outstanding Thierry Henry came from Cameroon's Lauren, who joined Henry and Sylvain Wiltord in one of those three-man attacks that are becoming the height of fashion among international managers, Sven-Goran Eriksson among them.
Lauren and Henry found the net along with Patrick Vieira, Henry's second goal making him the first Premiership player to reach 20 in the current campaign (Ruud van Nistelrooy's 19th had kept Manchester United on top yesterday). Henry reached the figure in an incongruously inelegant manner as a header from Lauren bounced from the foot of a post and in off him; barely deserved maybe, but at least Henry was in the right place at the right time, as he seemed to be all afternoon until making a slow, applause-drenched walk to the tunnel.
For Fulham, with only one win in five League matches, the result points to a struggle to stay in the upper half. For Arsenal it is an encouraging prelude to the return fixture with Bayer Leverkusen at Highbury on Wednesday.
Again Robert Pires was excellent. His point-securing goal in Germany last week had underlined the splendour of his contribution to the side; it was his ninth of the season. With Freddie Ljungberg having chipped in 10 before succumbing to a rib injury last month, the penetrative significance of Arsene Wenger's first-choice wide midfielders cannot be overstated.
Even without his goals, however, Pires would be a more than handy provider and few would deny that of late he has eclipsed his compatriot Vieira and become the club's key man. Here the customary French flavour was enhanced by the presence of four Fulham starters from the across the Channel - the same number as Arsenal - plus three substitutes.
These included the 18-year-old French academy product Jeremie Aliadiere, who featured in Arsenal's FA Youth Cup-winning team last season, scoring nine goals to equal Michael Owen's record for the competition. Aliadiere, who had not been involved in a Premiership match before, had the honour of taking over from Henry in the closing minutes. With his presence, there were enough Frenchmen to form a team. Plus, of course, the respective managers and, in the case of Jean Tigana, his principal assistant, Christian Damiano.
Tigana turned to Zat Knight after Sean Davis had reported a virus in the morning, and it quickly became obvious that the role in question - Fulham's defensive midfielder - was not going to be an easy one. Even before Arsenal took an early lead, Wiltord had glanced a header across the face of an anxious Edwin van der Sar's goal, and Wiltord was soon to take part in the slick move that brought the breakthrough.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst began it, advancing and finding Henry, whose instant lay-off set Wiltord free to the left. He cut in, teasing Van der Sar with hints of a near-post shot before squaring for Lauren to slide home.
The inspired Henry, constantly dropping off the front, shot impetuously and high when served by a fine long ball from Van Bronckhorst. But the Dutchman did not distinguish himself defensively when Fulham equalised. Rufus Brevett sent over a swirling cross from the left and Van Bronckhorst, instead of challenging Steve Marlet at the far post, unaccountably backed away from the striker, who had little difficulty in heading wide of a hopelessly exposed David Seaman.
Fulham, however, did not remain level for long and this time the malady afflicting left-backs struck Brevett, who, in endeavouring to find Andy Melville, succeeded only in giving possession to Henry. A reverse ball, beautifully executed, found Vieira galloping through and Van der Sar was well beaten. The goalkeeper saved smartly with his feet from Lauren but, towards the interval, was obliged to concede again after Henry mastered Melville rather too easily.
A Pires cross led to the fourth goal and Lauren's header left Henry with a chance he could not, quite literally, miss.
NEWS of the WORLD
Arsene Wenger hailed Thierry Henry after the striker returned to haunt Jean Tigana, the manager who gave him his start in the game at Monaco, with a double-strike.
With 11 French players on display at Highbury, along with two French managers, it was Henry who stood out alongside compatriots Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord.
The striker took his tally for the season to 27 goals after Vieira's first strike of the season put the Gunners ahead again after Steve Marlet had equalised Lauren's early effort.
With a hat-trick in sight, Henry was reluctant to leave the pitch when he was replaced by teenager Jeremie Aliadiere for his Premiership debut.
Wenger said: "Thierry wanted to score one more but he understands. He loves the game so much and he had an outstanding game and made another step forward as a team player.
"I told him that Jeremie would never forget that he gave him his first start. If you can't give a chance to a youngster when you are 4-1 up then you never will."
There was the blow of a knee injury to Giovanni van Bronckhorst, but Arsenal moved into second behind Manchester United.
Wenger added: "It was vital for us to re-establish our strong belief at home in the league. We knew that we had to improve our home form as we feel very strong away from home.
"That will comfort us to think we should win the championship playing like that. It was a great performance, with great moves, mobility, power, technique and team spirit."
While Kanu was omitted due to a "minor" injury, Wenger must wait to assess the extent of van Bronckhorst's knee problem ahead of Wednesday's Champions League rematch against Bayer Leverkusen.
"It could be the cartilage on his left knee. The doctor is optimistic but we will have to see," said the Arsenal boss.
Fulham coach Tigana admitted the game had exemplified the gap between the top four or five sides and those in mid-table.
Although Marlet equalised for Fulham after 10 minutes, they were never really in contention and Tigana admitted: "There is a big difference between the teams.
"I knew that before but I know it even better now. We gave the ball away and had bad organisation. We have to learn from this."
French was the flavour at Highbury as all five goals were netted by Frenchmen.
The day belonged to the inspired Henry, who struck twice and had a hand in the other two to help the Gunners move within just one victory of United on 54 points.
But while Tigana tries to emulate the feats of his counterpart Wenger across the capital, the Arsenal boss knows he already has the creme de la creme.
Also on the scoresheet was Lauren to open the scoring after five minutes and Vieira to add a second 10 minutes later after Marlet had replied for Fulham. Henry did the rest.
Vieira was outstanding again, driving his side forward with panache and power.
And there was more Gallic flair on show as Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord tormented the Cottagers' rearguard with their pace and trickery.
The first goal was one such moment. Van Bronckhorst found Henry, who in turn provided for Wiltord on the overlap. And Lauren was there to sweep home the cut-back.
Fulham struck back within five minutes completely against the run of play, with Marlet left unmarked at the far post to head home Rufus Brevett's deep cross.
Arsenal were peeved and Henry immediately set about regaining the one goal cushion as he anticipated a backwards pass by Brevett and nipped in to flick the ball into the path of the onrushing Vieira, who rifled his shot home.
Vieira then combined with Wiltord to pick out Henry, who shook off Andy Melville before finishing with aplomb.
Wiltord somehow blazed over when it was easier to score, and although he tested Edwin Van Der Sar again, the Dutch keeper couldn't stop the Arsenal fourth.
Pires was this time the creator, picking out Lauren with a deep cross and although his header struck the post, it rebounded onto the lurking figure of Henry and back into the net.
Wenger brought on two more Frenchmen - Gilles Grimandi and Aliadiere - in the closing stages as Fulham were made to watch and learn.