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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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A tale of two strikers

British belligerence and French flair, James Beattie and Thierry Henry symbolize the contrasting approaches of FA Cup finalists Southampton and Arsenal.

Henry has the pace of an athlete, Beattie a background in swimming. Henry glides past defenders, Beattie bulldozes his way through them. Henry's performances have attracted worldwide acclaim, while Beattie's popularity in Hampshire has been augmented by a second England call-up.

That Henry and Arsenal are in a third successive FA Cup final is no surprise; only the anticipated double double has not materialised. That Beattie and Southampton have both a cup final appearance and a top eight finish in the Premiership to show for their season is a greater shock.

But both teams' top scorers, somewhat predictably, have been central to their success, even though Henry and Beattie can only boast a solitary FA Cup goal apiece.

Henry, six months older than his Southampton counterpart, took the quicker route to the top. Courted by Real Madrid at 18, he was a World Cup winner at 20 and a £10.5million signing for Arsenal the following year.

Converted to a striker by Arsene Wenger, his progress was rapid. His first Arsenal goal came against Southampton; a further 110 have followed in four seasons along with a domestic double last year and victory in Euro 2000 with France.

Along the way, Henry has not so much redefined the centre forward role as established himself as a unique player - Ian Wright, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars rolled into one.

Beattie, in contrast, is a highly conventional centre forward, old-fashioned even. He used to clean Alan Shearer's boots at Blackburn and comparisons are obvious. Shearer, though, was never prolific at Southampton, scoring 23 times in 118 games. Beattie's first four seasons with Saints, after a £800,000 move, produced 28 goals in 116 games.

His wholehearted efforts earned him the club's Player of the Year award in his first season. Beattie's second year, however, produced precisely no goals. With the benefit of hindsight, Glenn Hoddle would not have accepted an offer from Crystal Palace for him, nor would Stuart Gray have omitted the future England player for goal-shy honest trundler Uwe Rosler.

This has been a landmark year for both. Henry has been voted the PFA and Football Writers' Player of the Year, won Goal of the Season and topped one poll as the best striker in the world. Southampton's Player of the Year, Beattie, who scored one Premiership goal fewer, is suddenly, statistically, one of the league's top three strikers, with Henry and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Henry has been both a constant and consistent in attack for Arsenal... As Saints' injuries have mounted Beattie's quality has become more pronounced, the one-man team jibes more meaningful.

Henry started the season at a canter, an almost effortlessly brilliant goal against West Ham in August, for this observer, the best of the season. But Beattie lumbered his way through a goalless August and September, overtaken by linesmen and omitted at Bolton.

Out of sorts, out of shape and out of pocket after a drink-driving conviction, the unlikely duo of Peter Enckelman and Alpay came to his rescue, gifting him the first of a flurry of penalties. It was just a hot streak, scoffed his critics. It would end. And it did - after 23 goals in 26 games, the sort of streak which would bring Shearer a knighthood.

The penalties dried up, but the goals didn't. They just assumed different forms; a lob at Everton; rounding the keeper at Sunderland; a solo run against Tottenham; a left-foot volley and a long-range shot at Middlesbrough; a thunderbolt to beat West Brom; another, Le Tissier-esque, volley at Charlton. It is a diverse collection rivalled only by Henry's.

And the goals kept on coming for the Frenchman, too. A Champions League hat-trick at Roma is perhaps the highlight of a remarkable season, an inadvertent goal - against Manchester United - another for the repertoire.

Typical Henry, getting the important goals. And, as the chant at St Mary's goes, same old Beattie, always scoring. The artist from Ajax (Bergkamp) and the artisan from Accrington Stanley (Brett Ormerod) have been regular partners in attack, but at each club, the brunt of the responsibility for scoring has fallen on one man.

Ormerod (with five) is Saints' second top scorer in the Premiership while early season flurries from Sylvain Wiltord and Kanu and meaningless hat-tricks from Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg in the last week camouflaged Arsenal's dependence on Henry.

Improving and increasingly consistent, Beattie scored 23 of Saints' 43 Premiership goals. To put his achievements into context, only three other players have ever scored more than 50 percent of their team's goals in a Premiership season: Shearer, Kevin Phillips and Matt Le Tissier.

Henry: Player of the year at home
Henry: Player of the year at home

Reaching ever higher standards of excellence, Henry's final tally was 24 (out of 85) for Arsenal but he was also involved in the majority of their goals. His 20 assists would be remarkable for David Beckham or Pires; for a goalscorer, it is incredible.

Henry apart, Arsenal's flair players have endured mixed seasons. Like Sol Campbell in defence, he has been both a constant and consistent in attack. Even when not on the scoresheet - as in the 6-1 win over Southampton - he was still the best player on the pitch.

And, as one by one, Saints' other outstanding performers fell by the wayside, injury or loss of form affecting Rory Delap, Wayne Bridge, Chris Marsden and Fabrice Fernandes, Beattie's quality became more pronounced, the one-man team jibes more meaningful.

But for two such prolific players, the goals in their very biggest games have so far proved elusive. Henry has played in the finals of Euro 2000, the UEFA Cup and two FA Cups (he was an unused substitute in the 1998 World Cup final) without scoring, while Beattie's solitary England game and FA Cup semi-final efforts were equally futile.

It would be a major shock if neither the Frenchman nor the Englishman fails to change that in Wales.