By Richard Clarke
Watch out Chelsea, Arsenal are coming for you.
Arsène Wenger’s side closed within four points of the leaders with a comfortable 4-1 win at Portsmouth on Wednesday night.
After soaking up significant pressure from the home side, Eduardo’s deflected free-kick gave the visitors the lead just before the half-hour. Then, three minutes from half-time, the Portsmouth defence afforded Samir Nasri ample time to slam home a second from the edge of the area.
A superb solo strike from Aaron Ramsey in the 69th minute should have killed the game yet Portsmouth grabbed a goal from Nadir Belhadj almost immediately. However Alex Song’s header ended any argument nine minutes from time.
This was Arsenal third successive victory by a three-goal margin. During December they have shrugged off the absence of Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner and now Cesc Fabregas to rebuild realistic title aspirations.
The comprehensive victory leaves Arsenal four points adrift of Chelsea at the top of the table. If they win their game in hand, a home fixture against managerless Bolton next Wednesday, that gap will be down to one point.
By the next time Chelsea play, Arsenal could be breathing down their neck.
Before kick-off, news filtered around the press box that Fabregas would be out for only 10 days. If true it would be a blessed relief. Player and manager had no regrets about the downside of his two-goal 27-minute cameo against Aston Villa but tonight Arsenal had to pay the price.
Of course, the Spaniard had not started against Villa so the only actual change from that team saw Denilson drop out with a back problem and Aaron Ramsey came in. The Welshman’s elevation was telling. After all he is perhaps the prince to Fabregas’ throne at Emirates Stadium.
Meanwhile, Tomas Rosicky was back on the bench after recovering from his hamstring problem.
This was a tricky game for Arsenal. After the win at Liverpool they had gone to Burnley, an equally hostile environment, and brought back a point. There was a similar euphoria after the 3-0 win over Villa on Sunday. However a draw was not enough this evening and the home side started with dynamism.
The created sustained pressure but only had one chance to show for it. That came in the ninth minute when Alex Song slipped trying to collect Traore’s pass on the halfway line and Kevin Prince Boateng sprinted into space in the right hand channel. He had Frederic Piquionne in the middle but decided to fire towards the near post. Manuel Almunia needed a strong hand to turn the ball aside.
The home side failed to build on the chance and gradually Arsenal started to turn the screw. They won a succession of corners but only created a flurry of half-chances. Andrey Arshavin hacked an effort over, Eduardo nodded well wide and Bacary Sagna saw his low drive fail to penetrate a forest of defenders in the area.
The clearest effort came in the 19th minute when Eduardo cut the ball back to Abou Diaby on the corner of the area but the Frenchman’s sidefoot shot was beaten away by Asmir Begovic at the near post.
Portsmouth were now on the back foot. Boateng sprang the offside trap for a split second but he lost his footing at the crucial moment. Arsenal would follow that chance by taking the lead.
In the 29th minute, Aaron Mokoena fouled Ramsey on the edge of the area. Eduardo tried to bend the free-kick into the far corner but Younes Kaboul tried to intervene. The former Spurs centre back could only steer the ball inside the other post. The goal was full of fortune but it had been coming.
The strike knocked out what stuffing was left in the Portsmouth side. Belhadj fired an optimistic effort well wide but the home side’s lack of confidence was plain to see.
Three minutes from the break, Arsenal’s second goal merely hammered the point home. The Portsmouth defence stood off Eduardo in the area so he had ample time to find Ramsey. The Welshman, also unchallenged, squared to Nasri, who fired home from 15 yards. It was the Frenchman’s first goal of the season and it had been all too simple.
At the break, Portsmouth appeared to be a beaten side.
In fairness, they raised themselves as best they could after the restart. Belhadj thundered an effort wide in the opening stages but the home side could not follow it up.
You felt Arsenal were always in control. In the 69th minute, they proved it. Ramsey picked up the ball in midfield, skipped past the weakest of challenges then thumped home a shot from 22 yards. It was cracking goal from a player who only turned 19 on Boxing Day.
Portsmouth grabbed a goal five minutes later when Anthony Vanden Borre cut the ball back for Belhadj stab home a shot.
But it was a mere blip. These are dark days for Portsmouth, who had been served with a winding up order by HM Revenue & Customs on the afternoon of the game. The home fans were singing songs against the Club’s owners for much of the second half.
Their defence hardly help the situation. Nine minutes from time, Nasri crossed to an unmarked Song, who steered his header into the far corner. The goal, like the game, had been handed to Arsenal all too easily.At the full time, the visiting fans had their own song to sing -‘we’re going to win the League’.
Right now, they have a convincing argument.
Referee: Alan Wiley
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