Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Thursday December 27 2007
I`m not much of a traditionalist, but the Boxing Day fixture is always one I look to with relish. When you have a family as big and diverse as mine (not to mention as predominantly female as mine), the chance to escape the house post Christmas is most welcome! Having seen the fixture computer throw up Pompey away, I decided some weeks ago to spend my Christmas with family in Brighton, reasoning that a short jaunt along the coast would be simple enough. Of course, I did not legislate for the fact that England`s public transport system is run by morons. No trains to Portsmouth at all on Boxing Day. Well that`s a brilliant idea for the day Pompey are playing at home isn`t it? Being an environmentally conscious individual, I don`t drive (alright, so I can`t be bothered to learn, big whoop). So I had to make the journey from Brighton back into my native South London. Only to be driven all the way back down to the South Coast by my chauffeur for the day. The genius of Southern trains was further cemented when it became apparent that there would be heavy road works on the M275. Upon seeing these acts of inexplicable ineptitude, the daddy of all inconsiderate morons, Sly Sports just couldn`t let their title of "world`s biggest c***ts" go unchallenged, oh no. So they moved the kick off to 7.45pm, making the journey that little bit more arduous for hardy souls like me who have to work the next day. Woe with bloody me!
Anyways, we arrived in Fratton in good time and decided that, having all stuffed ourselves full of Christmas turkey 24 hours previously, a KFC would be a simply marvellous idea! Arriving into the Milton End through a different turnstile than in previous years, a late Christmas present arrived in the shape of a roof over the away end, well blessed be! Taking my place directly behind the goal, I spent much of the warm up wincing as Nicklas Bendtner blasted strike after strike into the net yards from my face. Having a roof over the away end, aside from the obvious shelter it provides, also keeps the noise in much better. In past years, Arsenal voices have been lost into the sea breeze, nullifying the atmosphere (especially infuriating as Pompey are the only team left in the top flight who actually make noise at home games), but the travelling Gooners sounded in much better voice, even giving an airing to a new number, chanting Mathieu Flamini`s name to the old theme tune of retro cop show, 'The Sweeney.` Manuel Almunia even got a jovial chorus of, "England`s number 1." (Wouldn`t it be so deliciously ironic if Arsenal were to provide England`s first ever bona fide foreigner?)
Having just been comprehensively thrashed at Anfield and given their shot shyness at home, Portsmouth were always going to set up to be cagey and tough to break down. After all, Pompey have two main stays of a back four that finished an entire Premier League campaign undefeated! (In fact, Pompey started the match with three members of the Invincibles side, Arsenal started with one). But the Gunners` looked to have found their rhythm early on, in the first minute of the game, Eboue put in a teasing right wing cross which Cesc Fabregas could only brush wide. A little more hair gel might have seen him test the evergreen David James. Eboue continued to look Arsenal`s most potent threat early on, playing a swift one two with Adebayor on the edge of the box before sending a vicious strike whistling over the crossbar. It was Eboue again who would test James for the first time around about ten minutes in, sending in a low shot. But Pompey got a foothold back into the game thereafter, though they rarely troubled Arsenal with Benjani taking up something of a wide berth and Gallas resisting the aerial threat of Kanu. With Fabregas lacking sharpness (I lost count of the number of times he let team mates` passes whistle under his feet) and Adebayor looking isolated against the incredibly resilient Campbell and Distin, Arsenal struggled to break down Pompey`s stiff resistance. However, the Gunners fought the good fight in midfield, particularly pleasing to see Mathieu Flamini fly into challenges with the gargantuan Papa Bouba Diop. Just before half time, Tomas Rosicky cut in from the left, and sent a deft curler towards the top corner only for James to pluck it from the air. Half time arrived with trepidation, as the worrying sight of a pained William Gallas had all in the away end whispering to the heavens. With Toure about to join the Ivory Coast, we cannot lose our already indispensable skipper. (In fact, if this game were to be played one month hence, how different would the starting line ups look?) Song warmed up rather more strenuously than his counterparts at half time, which multiplied my fears. (Meanwhile, Abou Diaby undertook a hilarious cameo in goal, with Bendtner and Lehmann shooting at him. I can confirm he has no future in the number 1 shirt!)
Ironically, at the start of the second period, given his comments about abuse from opposing supporters this week, Sol Campbell was given a rousing reception by the travelling faithful, which looked to have genuinely moved him. Sadly, Lauren was largely ignored which I find strange given his stellar contribution to Arsenal. The second half saw the Gunners` attack with slightly more intent, but no more end product, time and again, Adebayor found himself stranded up against the towering infernos of Campbell and Distin. Pompey created their first meaningful chance of the match; Benjani latched onto Bouba Diop`s punt forward, rounded Almunia outside the box, but Gael Clichy hurtled back to prevent the Zimbabwean adding some points to my Vital Dream Team. Wenger threw on Diaby too add some power in the final third when Bendtner would surely have been the better choice. I could see the logic with Diaby`s close control and physical presence, but Bendtner has an abundance of both which he could use higher up the pitch. It seemed to me at the time that the last thing we needed was to add another midfielder to the mix. Especially, as Diaby`s cameo was a literati of misplaced passes and poor control. Bendtner was eventually thrown on as Pompey began to tire, nerves infusing their weary limbs. The ambition was not there as they were unwilling to commit men forward; Arsenal sensed their advantage and went for the jugular. With two minutes remaining, Pompey half cleared an Arsenal corner, Fabregas sent in a tame shot, which Gallas controlled on the six yard line, he swivelled and shot in one movement but hooked the ball over the bar. I was right in line with Gallas about four yards away from him as he took the chance and I can tell you it was more difficult than it looked given the speed of play.
I mentioned a few weeks back that Bendtner always seemed to make something happen when arriving from the bench, and he would do so again. Cesc hooked a cute ball to him at the edge of the box, the Dane chested down, turned past two Pompey defenders and hooked the ball back for Rosicky, the goal yawning at his mercy, but he inexplicably snatched at the shot and screwed it wide in injury time. The Milton End simultaneously stood aghast, heads in hands. At the final whistle, the PA announcer publicly thanked the travelling support for their good behaviour, which was met with warm applause. It`s nice for clubs to show a little bit of class like that, if only that utter tosser at the Riverside knew similar humility, I probably wouldn`t laugh myself silly at Boro`s current predicament. In the end, a point is no bad result at a place like Fratton Park, we matched them physically and earned the right to play, but really we should have thrown Bendtner into the fray much sooner, as I`ve a feeling he would have made light work of heavy legs given more of a chance. It`s disappointing not to be on top anymore, but United are playing brilliantly, for which they deserve fulsome credit. But they were in a similar situation to us back in the early autumn, not playing brilliantly, but clinging onto our coat tails with unspectacular results whilst we were firing on all cylinders. No prizes are handed out in December and there are many surprise results in store for both sides (who had United down for a defeat at the Reebok, or us down for defeat at the Swampside?), as Jimmy Cliff once crooned, there are many rivers to cross yet.LD
Date:Thursday December 27 2007
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