Arsenal's early-season goal-rush continued as they ran out comfortable 4-1 winners over Portsmouth at Ashburton Grove yesterday. The victory was achieved with relative ease and saw the Gunners maintain their impressive start to the campaign.
After a somewhat lethargic opening to the match, the home team took control midway through the first half thanks to two goals in quick succession from Abou Diaby. Portsmouth replied just before the break when Younis Kaboul easily out-jumped Manuel Almunia to head home. It was poor goalkeeping from the Spaniard who appeared to be just waiting for the ball to come to him rather than proactively attacking the cross. Still, it was not an error that proved costly and the goalkeeping clanger was absolved by four goals at the other end.
Arguably, the pivotal moment of the match came just after the interval when Portsmouth’s John Utaka was sent clear and was heading for a one-on-one with the goalkeeper. As he approached the penalty area he appeared to be felled by William Gallas who was racing back to cover his run. For a split second the crowd held its breath waiting for the whistle – but the whistle did not come and referee Steve Bennett waved play-on. Had he decided that the contact constituted a foul, Gallas would surely have been sent off and the remainder of the match could have proved far more difficult than it actually turned out to be. As it was, it looked like a big slice of luck. On other days, the Gunners might not have been so fortunate.
It was something of a cruel irony for Pompey that only moments later it was Gallas who bundled home Arsenal’s third and put the match well out of the visitor’s reach. Aaron Ramsey who replaced the injured Cesc Fabregas at half-time completed the rout with a strike in the 69th minute. The Gunners cruised through the remainder of the game and ran the clock down in facile style. It might not have been a classic – nor was it as impressive as the performance at Goodison Park last week – but there can be no real complaints about such a convincing win.
Apart from the result, there were a couple of encouraging aspects to the performance. Firstly, the squad showed that it now has a bit of depth and balance as Arsene Wenger rang the changes and rested four of the players that started the previous two matches – Sagna, Clichy, Song and Bendtner. Those who came in to replace them – Eboue, Gibbs, Diaby and Eduardo – all slotted in seamlessly. It did not feel like the squad had been rotated. The fluid formation of 4-5-1 in defence and 4-3-3 in attack was again in evidence and all the players coming in had no problems in picking up where those who were rested had left off.
The second heartening feature of yesterday’s match was that the players really do give the impression that they have a point to prove this season. Everyone looked like they were taking their business very seriously and that there was a job that had to be done. It was in marked contrast to this time last year when lackadaisical performances cost the team defeats away at Fulham and at home to Hull. Certainly, for Gunners to really achieve anything this season it is an attitude the players will have to reproduce individually and collectively game after game.
There are several players who have been with the club for a number of years now and who definitely need to step up to the plate to prove their potential and that they are winners. Abou Diaby is one such character and he did have a decent game yesterday. In his Arsenal career so far he has shown himself to be an exciting midfielder when bursting forward but he has been less impressive in his defensive work and doing the hard graft that is required of a top-class midfielder. Yesterday was a good day for the young Frenchman and he delivered in all departments but he needs to be producing similar performances more consistently – and stay out of the treatment room – for his promise to be truly fulfilled.
The only blot on yesterday’s proceedings was the injury to Cesc Fabregas that forced his withdrawal at half-time. It will become evident over the next few days as to whether he really has strained a hamstring or whether he was just feeling some tightness in his leg. Either way, he looks certain to miss the second leg of the Champions League play-off against Celtic on Wednesday but with two big away games against Manchester United and Manchester City coming up fingers will be crossed that the injury was nothing serious. In the three games that have been played so far this season, Cesc has been nothing short of inspirational. He engineered the first two goals yesterday with two fabulous passes and it is his energy and creativity that makes the whole team tick. Keeping him as fit as possible throughout the season will be a critical factor in the team’s drive for success.
So, it’s back to Ashburton Grove on Wednesday for the second leg against Celtic and the Gunners will be looking to finish the job they started in Glasgow a week ago. It is a game they will want to get through with the minimum of fuss and drama. In their opening matches the team has showed plenty of professionalism in their approach and they will need another business-like performance on Wednesday to ensure their safe passage into the draw for the tournament proper on Friday.