By Richard Clarke
Arsenal guaranteed themselves a top-four finish in the Premier League with a comfortable 3-0 win at Portsmouth on Saturday.
Arsène Wenger’s side took control early on and never let go as they prepared for a massive week in fine style. Portsmouth keeper David James let Nicklas Bendtner’s header slip through his fingers in the 10th minute and then the Dane stroked home from the penalty spot just before the break.
The hosts tried their best to rescue something from the game immediately after the restart but were rocked on their heels by Carlos Vela’s opportunist strike after 56 minutes.
Portsmouth’s day got even worse when Noe Pamarot was sent off for hauling down Andrey Arshavin on the edge of the area when the Russian was about to go clear.
This was a none-too-taxing win for a much-changed side. Of course, Arsenal now have that massive Champions League Semi-Final second leg at home to Manchester United on Tuesday. This win ensured Wenger’s side will be involved in the competition next season in some way.
However that is still likely to be via the Qualifying Round. Chelsea’s victory over Fulham at Stamford Bridge ensures the gap between fourth and third remains at six points.
Guus Hiddink’s side arrive at Emirates Stadium next weekend. But not before Tuesday night’s season-shaping game with Manchester United.
Wenger made eight changes from the side beaten at Old Trafford in midweek. The only survivors were Theo Walcott, Alex Song and Bacary Sagna. Alex Song dropped to centre back while Emmanuel Eboue filled in at left back. Aaron Ramsey came in to central midfield with the returning Arshavin, named as captain in only his 12th Arsenal game, on the left-hand side. Bendtner and Vela were up front.
Despite the changes, Arsenal were bright and cohesive from the off. In the opening minute, Walcott dragged a dangerous effort across the face of goal.
Although Nadir Belhadj did go clear and then blaze over, the visitors had already hit a comfortable passing groove.
For their part, Portsmouth had been defensively sound in recent months but the opener today was soft in the extreme.
In the 13th minute, Vela had claims for a penalty when Sylvain Distin seemed to have a piece of the Mexican’s shirt. In the end the Frenchman put the ball out for a corner. Arshavin’s first effort was returned to him. His second cross was met by Bendtner’s header. The Dane’s effort was firm but it should not have had sufficient power to squirm through the fingers of keeper James. It was the confidence boost this young side needed and they started to spray the ball around with a swagger.
In the 17th minute, Eboue reached the left-hand byline and cut the ball back for the unmarked Vela. The Mexican had time so he took a touch. It was the wrong decision as the delay allowed the Portsmouth defence to regroup at his eventual shot was deflected over the bar.
Arsenal’s control was not complete however. In the 25th minute Portsmouth should have equalised when Peter Crouch exchanged pass with Belhadj to go clear on goal. His chip beat the advancing Fabianski but wandered wide of the far post.
Wenger’s men would make them pay. Four minutes from the interval, Sean Davis hauled down Arshavin as he went clear on the right of the area. Portsmouth disputed the penalty decision bitterly but Bendtner took charge and slotted home his eighth Premier League goal of the season.
Clearly unhappy, Portsmouth boss Paul Hart brought on Kanu and John Utaka at the break. The latter screwed a shot wide and fired an effort over in the opening five minutes.
Portsmouth had clearly found more purpose at the interval. A minute later Utaka’s cushioned header set up Crouch who slashed a shot over the bar then Kanu forced Fabianski into his first real save of the game.
In the 55th minute Utaka had a gilt-edged chance when he collected a hanging ball and stumbled past Fabianski. The Nigerian had the goal at his mercy but could not untangle his feet before Sagna stole the ball.
It had been all Portsmouth for the first 10 minutes after the restart but again Arsenal would profit from their profligacy. In the 56th minute Portsmouth failed to clear their lines after Arshavin’s drive and Vela fired home his sixth goal of the season into the far corner.
Wenger clearly thought the goal had killed the game. Shortly afterwards he brought off Walcott for Amaury Bischoff.
Vela’s rising drive forced a superb save from James with 15 minutes left but by now Arsenal were only tamely threatening more goals. Their pursuit was made easier when Pamarot was sent off for tugging Arshavin as the Russian looked to go clear in the area.
Crouch flicked himself into space and fired over minutes later and in the dying stages Fabianski saved superbly from Distin. But it was a token response really.
The game had gone long ago and the points belonged to Arsenal.
Now for Manchester United
Referee: Lee Mason
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