Gunners' Pay the Penalty
With the respective cities of Sheffield and Manchester luminous with nerves, tension and drama, it was hard to think of this game as anything other than an obligation. The team have been playing out bland end of season affairs for two months now and frankly, the final curtain has been something of a relief and the anticipation for next season can really begin. On a personal level, this game was another box ticked. This is now the fifth consecutive season in which I haven't missed a single game, in the five and a half years since I missed out on a ticket for Leeds away I have taken in the San Siro, the Bernebeu, White Hart Lane 04, Old Trafford 02, Cardiff on nine occasions and Sunderland away in the league cup on a Wednesday night. In terms of anticipation and excitement, this game did not come close to matching any of the aforementioned. With yet another weekend bender behind me and a very ill advised spontaneous night out in Leicester Square burgling my sleep, I have to confess that I barely even thought about this game until about 2.45pm this afternoon.
Taking up my seat I was located marginally to the right of the red action section, who were in fine form in the now traditional end of season fancy dress. I planned to indulge in some ludicrous threads myself, but spent Saturday afternoon watching Bristol Rovers versus Lincoln City in the pub (that's rock 'n' roll baby!) Plus, I travelled by train on my own and while I am not the most self conscious individual on earth (only ugly people get self conscious), I wasn't up for boarding the train on my tod dressed as Barney Rubble! Needless to say, watching a man dressed as huggy bear, standing next to the queen while gesticulating wildly towards Graham Poll was most amusing. With the feeling of anti climax clinging to the air around us, a few new songs were aired which probably have a snowman in hell's chance of ever being aired at our vocally moribund stadium. Eboue, Eboue, Eboue to the tune of Kaiser Chief's 'Ruby' was a particular favourite. A new take on the national anthem was aired too, 'God save our gracious queen, she loves the Arsenal team, God save the queen. She f*****g hates West Ham, Chelsea and Tott-en-ham, she is a Gooner through and through, God Save the Queen.'
The team line up made interesting reading, with Wenger conducting a few choice experiments. Eboue started on the right flank and did not really look comfortable. I think his strength is powering on from the back, wingers earn more attention than attacking full backs and Manu appeared a little lost. Johan Djourou played the midfield holding role and was my man of the match, he cut a very imposing figure. Incredibly strong in the challenge (Sean Davis will have the bruises to prove it) and typically composed on the ball, he may have added to our present conundrum in the centre. He was the perfect foil for Fabregas who was able to make lung bursting runs into the box. Pompey created a good chance early on, the Gunners' rearguard were caught in contemplative slumber early on as Davis's quick free kick saw Gary O'Neil steer marginally wide from the edge of the box. It served to give Arsenal a jolt and bereft of any pressure, the Gunners' played their own idisyncratic brand of pyrotechnic football. Clichy and Hleb were linking up effectively on the left, and we appeared to have a striker I'm not sure I've seen before. Excellent first touch, powerful and skillful, his name was Julio Baptista. He received a Hleb pass on the left hand side of the box, powered past Noe Pamarot and crashed a low shot which was brilliantly beaten out by Pompey player of the year David James (who was serenaded with 'England's number 1' by Arsenal fans).
Baptista was then to blow a golden opportunity, a Fabregas free kick swung in from the left saw the Beast cunningly lose his marker, but he planted the header narrowly over the bar with the goal at his mercy. The away side continued to press and when the Beast marauded into the box, he was tripped by Linvoy Primus for a penalty. Having missed two penalties this season, Baptista had no hesitation in picking the ball up this time. He hit his penalty with some pace, but nowhere near the corner and at a nice height for David James. James flung out an elongated limb and beat the spot kick away. It was a microcosm of our season, fine approach play, effective football, zero end product. From that point, the Beast metamorphasised back into the retiring, cumbersome figure that has become so familiar to us this season. His touch became sloppy and his effectiveness was greatly compromised. I've the feeling there is a top class player in there somewhere, I just don't think we'll be seeing him. Shame.
For a side needing a win for a chance of European qualification, Pompey appeared to lack urgency, players and supporters alike. Arsenal continued to dominate the second half territorially, but seriously lacked conviction in the final third. There was a point in the second half where some fine interplay saw Fabregas put Hleb in space on the left, as he looked up to deliver a low cross I never got the feeling from his body language that he genuinely believed his cross would be met by an Arsenal shirt. Hleb had a great chance to break the deadlock in the second half. It was Fabregas again whose defence splitting pass put him in down the left, the Belarussian made a beeline for the goal, but tamely put his shot wide with only James to beat. There followed the game's only notable moment of controversy, Poom spilled a simple Kranjcar effort which was bundled in. Who by, I am not sure, it was at the other end of the ground, but the Pompey faithful rejoiced as the players cavorted in celebration. But the Arsenal players were not happy and implored Poll to consult his linesman. The assistant must have communicated with Poll via the vibrating buzzer as Poll conversed with his assistant and chalked the goal off- much to the mocking delight of the travelling Gooners. I managed to see a replay on the poorly lit screen behind the away section and it was definitely offside, so the correct decision was made. But quite why the linesman did not raise his flag I have no idea. It was a mistake so elementary, one can only laugh at such a level of incompetence.
There was still time for Baptista to miss another free header, but with other scores going Pompey's way, the noise levels became more animated as the Portsmouth faithful urged their troops on. Arsenal had pretty much stopped bothering, resigned to their profligacy defeating them once more. Pompey could not force a breakthrough as the final whistle sounded to bring down the curtain on the 2006/07. The Pompey public address system is not audible in the away end, how on earth Fratton Park has the requisite safety certificates is anybody's guess, so we were left to huddle around mobile phones to find out the respective fates of those in frankly more exciting circumstances. Sheffield United are down and, heartbreakingly, a last minute penalty from Harry Kewell ousted us from third place and it is fourth again. In all honesty, the word 'heartbreaking' was something of a hyperbole. Don't get me wrong, I wanted us to finish third, but I think I was more greatly troubled by smelling a particularly unpleasant fart upon exiting the ground. The diagnosis of the season I will save for a series of articles I have planned for this week, a month by month breakdown of the season. Some people might see that as a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder, but one diagnosis I can offer for surety is that today's game was very much D.O.A. LD.