By Richard Clarke
Arsenal will rely on their quiet men on Wednesday evening when they visit arguably the loudest ground on the Premier League circuit.
Portsmouth do not possess the most modern facilities in the top flight and, going by the table, are the division’s worst team at the moment but their supporters are nothing short of raucous.
Points are prised away from Fratton Park only after you have given the crowd less to shout about. And that is where William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen come in.
During August and September the centre backs won headlines for their scoring exploits; something that, in fact, masked a goal-against column that was far too busy for a side with title-winning aspirations.
However, since then, they have become a partnership. While the frontline has been beset by injuries, Gallas and Vermaelen have played all 18 Premier League games in tandem. A record of two goals conceded in their last five Premier League matches suggests the Frenchman, who has kept his counsel since losing the captaincy last season, and the Belgian, a reserved and thoughtful character, have gelled.
“I think that is 100 per cent true,” said Wenger. “I think they are solid, have a good understanding and look very good. I believe that defensively we are giving less room to our opponents at the moment. And now we want to build on that.
“Thomas is a very quiet boy but very determined but I believe you see with every ball he plays he has a good mixture of commitment and relaxed focus. That is very important when you play at the back. You must never panic because panic is something that is contagious and he looks always to master that.
“It is vital that you change your defenders as little as possible during a season, especially the central defenders. That is important for the team’s efficiency. You know somewhere our success will depend on these two playing together.”
Cesc Fabregas will miss the game at Portsmouth because of the hamstring he re-injured during his 27-minute two-goal cameo on Sunday. The extent of the captain’s problem is not yet known. However midfield re-adjustment is something that Arsenal will have to get used to in the next week. Denilson may miss this game due to a back injury picked up against Aston Villa but Tomas Rosicky could return from his hamstring trouble.
In addition Alex Song, another sizeable factor is the team’s defensive stability of late, will be leaving for the African Nations Cup after the FA Cup Third Round tie at West Ham on Sunday. Arsenal need to make the most of his power while they can.
Before shipping a highly-disappointing 2-0 defeat at Upton Park on Boxing Day, Portsmouth were considered to be in the midst of a revival. They had won three of their last four games at Fratton Park, the last of those against Liverpool, and had recently put the wily Avram Grant in charge.
“He has done well everywhere he has been,” said Wenger. “It was always his desire after Chelsea to come back to an English club so I'm not surprised he returned.”
Previous manager Paul Hart sold most of the major names in his squad during the summer and then went on a frantic recruitment drive around deadline day in August once a takeover had been completed.
Financial pressures still plague the club and so, with a mini-exodus close at hand due to the African Nations Cup, Portsmouth simply have to keep some momentum going.
The same can be said of Arsenal who, earlier in December, won a massive game against a top four rival (Liverpool) then went to the hostile home patch of a club down in the relegation zone (Burnley). On the back of the heartening 3-0 win over Villa on Sunday, history is repeating itself for Wenger. However he wants more than the point the team got at Turf Moor given Wednesday’s hosts are in a more precarious position.
“I think Portsmouth are in a more difficult situation than Burnley were,” he said. “With the defeat at West Ham, Portsmouth made a big disappointment for themselves because they lost to a direct competitor.
“But nevertheless it is always a difficult place to go, Portsmouth. I watched them against Liverpool. We need to turn up and come out with a top performance.”
Wenger ended November by doggedly defending his team in the post-match press conference that followed the 3-0 defeat by Chelsea. The disbelief was almost audible when the manager said the gap between the sides had not been that great on the day and Carlo Ancelotti’s side would soon stumble.
The mood is very different now. The 11-point margin Chelsea held that day will be down to one if Arsenal win at Fratton Park and then beat Bolton, their long-held game in hand, a week later.
“Of course this is now a very important game for us but the situation shows two conclusions,” said Wenger. “One, football changes very quickly. Two, sometimes I am right.
“Something has deeply changed in the Premier League. There are more teams aspiring to be in the top four. Already financially at the start the desire is there but the message given to the players at Man City, Tottenham, Aston Villa is 'now we want to be in there'. And that has changed the structure completely.”
Portsmouth are not in that bracket but they have rediscovered their fight in recent weeks and have always been driven by that ferocious home support.
Despite that Arsenal are defending an incredible 51-year unbeaten run against Portsmouth. The last time they were beaten by their opponents was March 1958. In the same month, Elvis Presley joined the US army, Nikita Khrushchev became Russian president and 'Bridge Over The River Kwai' collected seven Oscars.
This month is unlikely to be as historic of course. But the final game of the Noughties could play a pivotal role in setting up a silver-laden 2010 for Arsenal.
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