Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday May 3 2009
There are occasions when the fixture list can be incredibly kind and times when it can be incredibly unkind to you personally. An away fixture at Aston Villa on Boxing Day was a 24 carat gold gift given that my sister and nephew live four miles away from Villa Park. Then of course one of my sisters thought it would be a great idea to get married on F.A. Cup Final day this year. The defeat to Chelsea spared me in some way there, but a fixture away at Portsmouth on Bank Holiday weekend in May with the sun shining was a blessing indeed, given that my mother has surrendered the London life after so many years and moved to the Brighton seafront. Weekend away on the coast in glorious Bank Holiday sunshine? Yeah, go on then.
The train along the coast to Fratton amongst the rolling Hampshire countryside lent itself to the no pressure feel of the occasion. Pompey have probably squirrelled enough points for safety, Arsenal needed a win to achieve Champions' League football in the shape of the preliminary rounds at least. A few pints of sunshine at the Shepherd's Crook amongst a myriad of Gooners got vocal chords nicely lubricated for what proved to be a raucous atmosphere in the away end. The mixture of sunshine and beer is a curious one, but it seemed as though my 2,999 travelling bretheren had a similar tonic as it really was a coccophiny of noise. If the 53,000 others attending on Tuesday night can replicate that effort, then United are in for one hell of an evening. Glen Johnson was presented with the Portsmouth Fans' Player of the Year gong pre match, well deserved too. As the players warmed up it was a case of guess the sub as the squad numbers climbed into the high 50s, with Wenger selecting a Carling Cup style side bar Sagna and possibly Walcott. The facilities are always the subject of some mirth at Fratton Park, the only Ladies' convenience did not have a proper door, with only three transparent flaps masking the entrance. They are also positioned directly opposite the turnstiles. The gents meanwhile simply consisted of a wall on which to urinate.
It was Walcott who produced the first chance too as the young Gunners hit the ground running, he roared past Herman Hreidarsson and placed a low shot wide of goal when he should have played the ball to an unmarked Bendtner. Arsenal were playing very good possession football with Ramsey pulling the strings, though Pompey did forge a meaningful opportunity of their own in the opening exchanges. Pennant and Belhadj combined to send the young Algerian through on goal, but his composure betrayed him and he screwed the ball horribly wide when he should have at least made Fabianski work. But Arsenal continued undeterred in the style that Arsene Wenger's Carling Cup sides so often do, Vela used his searing pace to race into the Pompey penalty area, Distin was struggling to keep pace and appeared to haul the young Mexican to the ground. The referee gave a corner, Distin was possibly the only man on the planet at the moment who seemed to want unnaturally close contact to a Mexican!
Arshavin's resulting corner was returned to him by Crouch, Arshavin stood up a beautiful cross to the back post which Bendtner headed goalwards, James appeared to have executed a comfortable save but allowed the ball to drift through his fingers and into the net. With all the discussion surrounding Manuel Almunia's England credentials, the away fans had good fun reminding James of that particular debate for the rest of the game. Arsenal nearly moved into a two goal lead when the peerless Emmanuel Eboue, playing in an unfamiliar left back position, motored to the by line for the first of a series of forrays through Pompey's defence, he pulled the ball back to Vela who was in oceans of space, but he infuriatingly tried to shift the ball back onto his left foot, allowing Hreidarsson to block his shot. Vela really, really has to start working on his right foot, if he won't take on a one on one from eight yards on his weaker foot he will be very easily stymied by opposing defenders. Players who are that desperately one footed, are playing to 50% of their realisable potential. I simply cannot accept that someone who spends seven days of their week playing football cannot use 50% of their body in their craft. Mr. Wenger must inculcate this into him on the training ground, look at how much effect Robin van Persie has in front of goal now he has realised that his right foot is not just for standing on.
Portsmouth crafted a fantastic opportunity for an undeserved equaliser, Belhadj played a deft one two with Peter Crouch, who picked his way through Arsenal's backline only to find Fabianski had closed down the angle, forcing Crouch to dink the chance wide. Therein proved to be a turning point as the Gunners immediately attacked, Sagna beat Belhadj to a cleared ball and played a slide rule pass to Arshavin in the area, Sean Davis performed a well timed tackle but Lee Mason abruptly pointed to the spot with Arshavin visibly disagreeing with the decision. Laudable honesty from Arshavin, but I have to doubt that any Arsenal player would be quite so quixotic if we were awarded a similarly unjust decision on Tuesday night. Bendtner immediately picked the ball up, showing an authority and confidence all too often missing when Arsenal have been awarded in the past (to the point that Gilberto was taking penalties out of a sense of duty as captain). He calmly passed the ball past David James' diving left hand and into the corner. Those intent on not liking Bendtner will have seen his insistence on taking the spot kick as intransigence, personally, I like a striker that relishes a penalty. I recall the likes of Vieira and Vivas stepping up and missing simply because nobody else wanted the responsibility.
The Gunners went into half time with a worthy lead. Ramsey and Denilson had pulled the strings in midfield, with Vela, Arshavin and Bendtner swapping positions, wide and centrally, to great effect, bamboozling Distin and Campbell. It was an example of Arsenal playing a quick, high tempo passing game and Walcott's pace was utilised properly on the right and Eboue was looking quite the makeshift left back, his name chanted relentlessly in the Milton End to the tune of White Stripes' Seven Nation Army. The nice irony with that choice of tune is that the aforementioned song emanates from the White Stripes LP 'Elephant', apt given Eboue's national lineage. Paul Hart bought on the Nigerian duo of Utaka and Kanu for the underwhelming Pennant and Hreidarsson. Suddenly, Pompey were a different animal, pressuring Arsenal high up the pitch and pinning us back. Campbell, whose name was chanted long and loud by the travelling supporters, launched a long ball to Crouch, he nodded down to ex Arsenal trainee Richard Hughes who had the presence of mind to tuck the ball inside to Utaka, but he screwed his shot wide with the goal gaping.
Utaka was the on the end of another high ball, this time nodding down to Crouch whose goalbound strike was deflected over by Djourou. Kanu stung Fabianski's palms with a long range strike. Pompey were on top and reserved their best chance for last, Hayden Mullins lifted a ball over the top of Song, Utaka smuggled his way round the advancing Fabianski, but could not sort his feet out and ended up swinging a wild air shot with the goal open. The Gunners were finally allowed to escape into the sanctity of the Portsmouth half, Walcott ran at Distin before laying the ball off to Vela, he shifted left to Arshavin, his shot cannonned off of Campbell and found Vela, on his left foot he shifted the ball to the side before squeezing a low shot past David James. The wind was well and truly suckered out of the Pomopey sails. It also meant a third assist of the game for Arshavin, even if one of them was seemingly a reluctant one. James pulled off a fine stop when Eboue sauntered forward down the left again and tucked the ball back to Vela, but his shot destined for the top corner was swatted away by the bear like palm of James.
Portsmouth were then reduced to ten men, Ramsey's lovely swinging pass put Arshavin through on goal but with Noe Pamarot tugging desperately at his shirt before finally hauling him to the ground. A clear goalscoring opportunity and a stonewall red card. Crouch nearly produced a goal of the season contender when he looped the ball over Song and sent a dipping volley just over the bar. There was also time for a contender for save of the season when a Utaka corner found its way to Distin who hooked the ball towards goal from four yards only for Fabianski to beat it out. Not the first reactions top from close range from him this season, think back to a similar save when he denied Zaki from the same sort of range against Wigan in the Carling Cup. In the end 3-0 was not an entirely unfair refelction, though Pompey might wonder how they did not score. The Gunners played with a joie de vivre and freedom that they could not manage at Old Trafford. Different opposition you might argue, but Arsenal showed they were at their best playing unhinged, high tempo passing football. Arshavin aids this with his incisive decision making, but I have to say, the omissions of Diaby and Adebayor worry me as that indicates that both will play and our tactics will once again be altered to pander to United. It hasn't worked against Chelsea this year, it didn't work in the first leg and it didn't work at Anfield in the Champions League last year when Toure was moved to right back. Yesterday showed the value of plugging on and playing our own game. Let's hope we do so come Tuesday.LD.
Date:Sunday May 3 2009
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