By Richard Clarke
Abou Diaby struck twice as Arsenal maintained their 100 per cent start to the season with an emphatic 4-1 win over Portsmouth at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
The Frenchman sidefooted in after 18 minutes and swept home another soon afterwards as Arsène Wenger’s side produced some sublime football in the first half.
They were pegged back by a header from Younes Kaboul just before the interval but a freak goal from William Gallas, his third in three games this term, and fourth from substitute Aaron Ramsey completed a satisfying afternoon for Arsène Wenger.
On paper this was the ‘gimme’ of Arsenal's teak-tough start to the 2009-10 campaign and, in fairness, the home side were always in control. But had they been off-par then an energetic, dogged Portsmouth outfit may have pushed them all the way.
However it never came to that; this was Diaby’s and Arsenal’s day. They completed the task with diligence and bought their goal tally to 12 goals in three games.
If they can see off Celtic on Wednesday in similar fashion then Wenger’s men can look forward to greater challenges ahead this season with real confidence.
The main news before kick-off was all about Eduardo. The Croatian had featured in four games last season and cameoed at Everton last weekend but this was his first Premier League start since that fateful day at Birmingham on February 23, 2008. The 26-year-old took up a role on the left side of the front three. Robin van Persie replaced Nicklas Bendtner at the pinnacle and Andrey Arshavin was on the right.
There were three further changes from the midweek win at Celtic. Emmanuel Eboue, Kieran Gibbs and Diaby came in for Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy and Alex Song respectively.
As usual, Portsmouth were backed by their boisterous, bell-ringing supporters. However their Club were perceived to be tethered by takeover talks and in real danger of relegation. Their early season performances had not really backed up that notion but they could surely do without facing a rampant Arsenal this afternoon. But then who could?
Eight goals and two stirring wins were celebrated with 60,000 twirling scarves before kick-off. The Club had arranged for one to be left on every seat and the supporters waved them with gusto as their side came out. The home team soon adjusted their play to the party atmosphere.
In the opening seconds, Diaby found a fraction of space on the right only to dally and allow the recovering Nadir Belhadj to deflect the ball over the bar.
It was the sign of things to come in the first 15 minutes – incessant Arsenal pressure but without real focus. Arshavin rolled a shot wide in the ninth minute and the home side forced a flurry of corners but David James should have been called into greater action before Arsenal took the lead in the 18th minute.
Eduardo collected the ball on the left, nudged it one side of Marc Wilson then cheekily raced around the other side to collect near the byline. The striker steadied himself before rolling a pass into the path of the onrushing Diaby, who sidefooted a powerful shot into the roof of the net. It was inventive, incisive Arsenal at their best.
And there was more to come. Within a couple of minutes it was 2-0 thanks to a classic counter-attack. Portsmouth had a free-kick that was headed clear by Diaby. He then roared forward as Arsenal broke and, by the time Fabregas had clipped a pass to Eboue on the right who squared the ball into the area, the Frenchman was on the penalty spot and able to sweep home a second.
Simple but brilliant football.
Arsenal were now threatening goals with every attack. A combination of Denilson and Fabregas somehow missed a low Fabregas cross in the following minutes. After that Arshavin nearly wriggled through, Van Persie produced an airshot when well-placed and Diaby tried his luck from distance.
On the half-hour, Kanu set up John Utaka at the near post but his shot was blocked by Eboue. However Arsenal were looking irresistible this afternoon and Van Persie replied with a deft control outside the area followed by a cute, curling shot that required all of James’ massive frame to tip the ball away.
The England keeper was similarly stretched in the 36th minute when Van Persie’s free-kick deflected off the wall and seemed destined for the top corner.
It was not exactly one-way traffic. Portsmouth were attacking with intent, but Arsenal seemed full of goals this afternoon. So Portsmouth’s strike, while not exactly a bolt from the blue, was entirely against the run of play.
The home side failed to clear a corner and Belhadj floated a cross to the far post where Kaboul bundled a header home. It was an old-fashioned goal and referee Steve Bennett allowed old-fashioned contact with Manuel Almunia in letting it stand.
The strike was a blow but Arsenal still had a strut about them. Van Persie shimmied himself free in the area two minutes from the whistle only to see his shot saved by the feet of James.
Fabregas felt his hamstring tighten at half-time and was replaced by Ramsey.
There was nearly a more significant change in the scoreline immediately after the restart. First Utaka went one-on-one with Gallas at the back and then went tumbling. If referee Bennett had ruled a foul against the Arsenal man then he was off. Fortunately he did not.
Seconds later Frederic Piquionne pounced on Gibbs’ indecision only to fire into the sidenetting. A decent chance.
They would be made to pay in bizarre circumstances as Arsenal extended their lead in the 51st minute.
Arshavin played over the free-kick, Van Persie flicked on, Vermaelen slid in at the far post but could only find Gallas, who kicked the ball into his own face and into the net.
The French centre back has scored in each of the opening three games but the last two have been laced with good fortune.
Arsenal were now searching for a goal to set the points in concrete. Eduardo shot straight at James while Van Persie had numerous chances to grab a fourth. However Portsmouth were refusing to lie down and only the timely intervention from Gibbs prevented Piquionne reducing the arrears midway through the half.
In the 69th minute, Arsenal did find their fourth when Van Persie split the Portsmouth defence and Ramsey raced through to slot home.
Wenger felt safe enough to substitute Arshavin and Eduardo for Bendtner and Fran Merida. Though just after making the changes Diaby picked up a knock that left the Arsenal midfielder ‘walking wounded’ for the next 10 minutes. Portsmouth were barely any better off with James having to be replaced by rookie Asmir Begovic.
To his credit, Piquionne had not given up. In the closing stages he shot straight at Almunia and then set up Utaka to sidefoot wide.
But the points belonged to Arsenal.
- Gallas Goal!
- Arshavin 71
- Diaby Goal! Goal!
- Fabregas (C) 45
- van Persie
- Eduardo 71
- Bendtner 71
- Merida 71
- Ramsey 45 Goal!
- James 75
- Kaboul Goal!
- Wilson 70
- Distin (C)
- Kanu 67
- Nugent 67
- Begovic 75
- Vanden Borre 70