THIS MATCH was billed as a dress rehearsal for Cardiff - let's hope not.

Saints were comprehensively beaten at Highbury last night just ten days before they face the Gunners in the FA Cup final, but the big question is how much bearing will this result have on the big day?

The answer is probably not very much.

But there is no doubt that lessons need to be learned very quickly to prevent a repeat performance.

Although both teams fielded weakened sides - particularly Saints - to try and protect some of their stars, it will be hard for this result to have no psychological impact at all.

It will no doubt be lessened by the thought of many first-team regulars coming back to the fold but, nevertheless, possibly five of the side that walk out at Cardiff next Saturday started last night.

It's hard to begin with where it all went wrong because, even though the scoreline doesn't suggest it, Saints did actually have their chances in this game.

Arsenal had only one more attempt at goal than Saints but Gordon Strachan's side had a far inferior ratio on target - and scored five less.

Saints were torrid in defence with only half of the regular back four lining up.

Paul Telfer and Michael Svensson were joined by Paul Williams and Danny Higginbotham and their lack of first team football in recent months was cruelly exposed by brilliant Arsenal.

Thierry Henry and Nwankwo Kanu dropped deep and tempted Williams to step out while Higginbotham regularly stepped across to almost make another centre-half, showing that his best position is, as he says, in the middle of defence.

All that did was leave Jermaine Pennant with a load of time and space on the right wing. Arsenal found him in good positions three times, and Pennant scored three times.

Saints could have taken a fourth-minute lead when Paul Jones's long kick bounced over everybody and Jo Tessem's attempt to lift the ball over Stuart Taylor was thwarted by the Arsenal man's finger tips.

Kevin Davies went in for a tackle and the ball broke back to Fabrice Fernandes, who blasted over the bar from inside the box.

It was a bad evening for the Frenchman, who was hauled off by Strachan after just 27 minutes to be replaced by Chris Baird, who showed much more of the fighting spirit required and gave himself a shot at a place on the bench at Cardiff.

But, after the promising opening, it all went wrong and Saints conceded five goals in the space of just 17 minutes.

On nine minutes, Kanu played in Ray Parlour, whose shot was blocked by Jones but bounced up to Robert Pires, who buried it at the far post.

Seven minutes later, it was two when Kanu showed great footwork before giving the ball to Henry. He found Gio van Bronckhorst, who in turn squared to Pennant to control and finish across Jones.

The third came after 19 minutes when Jones scuffed a right foot clearance but then produced a brilliant save from Kanu's drive.

But, from the resulting corner, Henry's deflected shot was saved by the feet of Jones only for Pennant to be on hand again to convert.

It was four on 23 minutes when Henry threaded the ball through to Pires, who took a touch before a clinical finish.

Arsenal's fifth in just 17 minutes and Pennant's ten-minute hat-trick followed shortly when Henry showed great skill to leave two Saints players on the deck, cut inside, then out and put the ball across to Pennant, who again fired across Jones and into the corner of the net.

Saints were reeling but Tessem grabbed some consolation on 35 minutes when Baird played the ball down the line to Wayne Bridge and his cross was finished at the far post by the Norwegian.

There were no more fireworks in the second half as Saints recovered from their shell-shock and Arsenal showboated rather than chase more goals.

It hadn't looked that way a little after a minute after the re-start when Pires grabbed his hat-trick with an audacious long-range, left-wing lob over Jones.

But the scoring ended there with the best chances for the remainder of the game falling to Saints.

Michael Svensson missed from close range when he should have scored, Tessem had an effort cleared off the line by Ryan Garry and sub James Beattie missed two good openings that could seriously damage his Golden Boot prospects.

If there's one thing this game did, it was to remind everybody with cup fever expecting Saints to bowl up and simply knock over Arsenal at Cardiff that that ain't gonna happen.

The Gunners are awesome and, while Saints do have a good chance of winning, they need to finish every opportunity they get and be on the very top of their form defensively to defeat them.

If not, this is what happens.