Portsmouth 1 Arsenal 4
Difficult as it is to believe, Fratton Park is one of my favourite away grounds. Those that have been will tell you how antiquated an arena it is, graffiti daubed on the walls outside the away end, rustic concrete steps lead you up to the Milton End, the female toilet stands directly opposite the away turnstile and it has only two transparent flaps for a door- a pervert`s paradise. The crude concrete steps show the remains of terracing with seats simply glued over the top of them- a bit like adorning the frame of your glasses with sellotape. I took the chance to take in the customs of season by spending a couple of nights at my Mum`s in Brighton before taking the train along the coast. Pre match we squeezed into the Shepherd`s Crook pub awash with Arsenal supporters before braving the bitter cold to make our way to our seats.
As ever in these types of away games, a team has to earn the right to play. Where Arsenal have struggled in the past is to exert themselves physically in the early parts of away matches. With Song and Diaby providing the muscle, there was never any danger of Arsenal being overpowered. Pompey briefly threatened when Song slipped in receipt of Traore`s pass, with Traore committed forward, Kevin Prince Boateng powered forwards into the space, but his shot from a tight angle was easily palmed away from Manuel Almunia. Arsenal threatened in kind with a slick move of their own, Diaby found Nasri in a central position, he shielded the ball away from Mokoena, before switching the ball to Eduardo inside the left channel and his cutback was met with an instinctive Diaby strike which was genuflected with an equally instinctive Begovic save. The Gunners wouldn`t have to wait long for their goal with Pompey`s early resolution fading. Ramsey played a swift 1-2 with Alex Song before being tripped by Tal Ben Haim. Eduardo stepped up for the resulting free kick; it was a tame left foot effort which deflected wildly off the thigh of Younes Kaboul and serendipitously into the far corner. Having not scored directly from a free kick for over two years, Arsenal have now done so for three consecutive games- though I suspect the dubious goals panel will again move to credit the goal elsewhere. (They have already done so twice this season, with deflections off of Eboue and Jody Craddock diminishing his goal tally). The belief instantly drained out of Pompey, though Belhadj was allowed to move forwards into space and unleash a left foot shot which flew wide. Gallas and Sagna ripped into Ramsey for failing to track back- it was not a mistake he repeated. Arsenal had Pompey under the cosh for the best part following the first goal- it was a position we had at Turf Moor a fortnight ago, a goal up and in command. We let that situation drift away from us; it was not a mistake the team would repeat.
The Gunners moved into a deserved two goal lead on the stroke of half time with a patiently crafted goal. Song`s intuitive ball into the area found Eduardo on the left, he could not find an angle for the strike so shifted the ball right to Ramsey, he quickly toe ended the ball to his right before Samir Nasri measured a low shot into the far corner. It was the kind of patience and perseverance a team at the summit of their confidence shows. Hreidarsson had tried unsuccessfully to knock Nasri out of his stride all match but had not succeeded, it seems Arsenal`s balls have dropped this season. The second half was a mere procession as Portsmouth never had the belief to mount the sort of comeback West Ham managed at Upton Park back in October. The away side were soon easing into a three goal lead with a sublime goal from Aaron Ramsey. Arshavin`s corner was cleared to the edge of Pompey`s area, Ramsey came sliding in on vanden Borre with a sumptuously clean challenge, he took a step forwards, sauntering inside Piquionne onto his left foot before striking a beautifully clean left foot strike beyond Begovic`s despairing dive. It was a well deserved goal from a player growing by the game in terms of maturity and decision making.
There were still a few minor headaches to bear. Pat Rice gave William Gallas a deserved earache for pushing needlessly into a centre forward position with the team 3-0 up, whilst Thomas Vermaelen looked to be carrying a shoulder injury. Portsmouth did register on the score sheet. Substitute Kanu used that slight of foot we are well familiar with to find Belhadj on the edge of the box, he played a slide rule pass beyond the slumbering Armand Traore, vanden Borre cut the ball back for Belhadj and his close range shot deflected in off Vermaelen, with Song also napping. But Arsenal soon had their three goal advantage back in tact with nine minutes left through another deserving goal scorer. Diaby found Song on the edge of the area, he pulled off a beguiling piece of skill, back heeling the ball against his own shin to get past the Pompey defence, the ball slightly over ran but Kaboul`s clearance only found Nasri on the right hand side and he beautifully clipped a cross to the back post which was headed into the corner by Song. From there on the final whistle was eagerly anticipated by all. Arsenal fans had their fun with the first rendition of "We`re gonna win the league" that I`ve heard for two years, whilst also mocking our hosts, the bane of HMRC, with a rendition of "We`re all standing on a future block of flats." In the end it was a quite straightforward victory, Arsenal earned the right to play by winning the physical battles in midfield before letting their class tell. The midfield three controlled the tempo of the game throughout. On the train on the way into Fratton I heard a few Pompey supporters remarking that "Arsenal`s foreign players might not fancy it." A quite amusing remark considering Portsmouth started with not a single Englishman in their starting line up (Steve Finnan was born in London, but represents Eire internationally) that included five Africans. It goes to show that image is an almost unshakable, Pavlovian mistress. That they hadn`t considered that "foreign" does not necessarily mean "floppy haired Mediterranean metro sexual" also caught my imagination- I`m sure "foreigner" Andrey Arshavin`s childhood winters in St. Petersburg were nothing compared to the South of England! Appearances can be deceptive and it appears that, against all odds, we`re serious title contenders. I would stress that the period of four games at the end of January and beginning of February will decide our fate as to whether we belong to the wheat or the chaff of the title race, but it would be a brave man to bet against us being in the mix in May on current form.LD.
Team: 1.ALMUNIA(c), 3.SAGNA, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 30.TRAORE, 17.SONG, 16.RAMSEY, 2.DIABY, 8.NASRI (37.Eastmond `86), 9.EDUARDO (7.Rosicky `76), 23.ARSHAVIN (12.Vela `82). Unused: 18.Silvestre, 19.Wilshere. 21.Fabianski, 32.Merida.