By Richard Clarke
William Gallas does not score often but when he does it is normally crucial.
This afternoon was the perfect example. Arsenal were in danger of slipping to their fourth successive Premier League draw before the French defender rose above Portsmouth keeper David James to head home nine minutes from time.
It was Gallas’ fifth goal of the season; others had come in the last minute at Twente and Kyiv, he also struck early against Spurs.
This one was every bit as important. Arsenal were listless at times against a defensively-minded Portsmouth. But they stuck to their task and eventually got their just reward.
With Liverpool winning 5-1 at Newcastle, Arsenal are still 10 points off the pace. But this victory puts them in the top four at least until Aston Villa visit Hull on Tuesday.
And that is very welcome.
Wenger made three changes from the side denied victory in the last minute at Villa Park on Boxing Day. Alex Song was omitted after picking up an injury in that game while Kolo Toure and Robin van Persie were left on the bench this afternoon.
Gael Clichy came in at left back and Mikael Silvestre moved central alongside Gallas. Nicklas Bendtner and Emmanuel Adebayor both returned as Arsenal switched to a more traditional 4-4-2. Abou Diaby was pulled back into his conventional role in central midfield.
Portsmouth were without Armand Traore because of his loan deal from Arsenal while Tony Adams left Jermain Defoe on the bench and David Nugent was handed a chance on the right of midfield.
Perhaps it was a tactical move but the former Spurs striker had been linked a move away from Fratton Park in the morning newspapers.
It was a bitterly cold afternoon at Emirates Stadium. And both sides started without much New Year’s resolution. Nothing noteworthy occurred in the opening 15 minutes however, with the visitors playing one man up front, the emphasis was on Arsenal to make something happen.
The intention was there alright but, in the end, Portsmouth not only carved out the first chance in the 24th minute, they nearly took the lead. Marc Wilson floated over a cross from the right-hand touchline and Crouch beat Gallas in the air to steer a header against the inside of the post. It bounced out into the danger area but Portsmouth’s formation meant there was no one on hand to pounce and Arsenal cleared their lines.
Portsmouth drew confidence from the opportunity while the home side started to look nervous. Niko Kranjcar had a goalbound shot blocked as the visitors started to commit more players forward.
Perhaps that was the very reason Arsenal nearly took the lead 12 minutes before the interval. Diaby’s pass split the Portsmouth defence and Adebayor raced clear. Sol Campbell’s challenge checked the striker’s run but he did manage to skip past keeper David James. The goal was now at Adebayor’s mercy but he had lost his momentum and Sylvain Distin prodded the ball off his toe.
Arsenal did not fully build on the chance before the break. Eboue’s backheel set up Nasri to have a shot blocked four minutes from the whistle. Another shot from the Frenchman was diverted wide by Campbell in injury time.
It had been an unusually sterile first half. You sensed a goal for Arsenal would see them kick-on but, with Portsmouth taking a safety-first policy, they were always going to be touch nut to crack.
They nearly broke through within two minutes of the restart. James spilled a corner from the left, Silvestre nodded forward but Adebayor could not scramble the ball home.
At least Arsenal had an energy in their game now. On the hour Denilson’s cross slid off James’ fist to Adebayor at the far post. Momentarily, the goal was unguarded but the ball would not come down for the Arsenal striker and he could only drive the ball into the sidenetting. A fine chance.
Midway through the half, Wenger brought on Carlos Vela for Eboue. The Mexican took up a position on the left with Bendtner on the right. Since half time, Nasri had been just behind Adebayor in the centre.
On 70 minutes, Bendtner’s header was blocked. Replays suggested it may have come off the hand of Papa Bouba Diop. Shortly after James made a fine save with his feet after Nasri had escaped in the right-hand channel.
Nadir Belhadj and substitute Aaron Ramsey swapped long-range shots but, as time began to ebb away, Arsenal looked the side most likely to break the deadlock.
And they did shortly afterwards. Vela was fouled on the left wing and Denilson fired the free-kick high into the heart of the area. Gallas beat James to the ball and gleefully nodded home.
Portsmouth now had to break out of their shell. There was one melee in the Arsenal area but, broadly speaking, the hosts had control. Nasri even hit the sidenetting into injury time.
Yet again, the full time whistle at Emirates Stadium was met with relief. This was not vintage Arsenal by any means but these are tough time for Wenger’s men.
It was a day when the points were much better than the performance. But that will do for now.
Referee: Alan Wiley
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