From Fratton Park –
Arsenal’s route down to Portsmouth and Fratton Park is one they haven’t travelled in a decade, and it’s one their current crop of players ventured for the first time on a mission to keep their season alive.
Thursday night’s Europa League defeat at the end of extra time at the hands of Olympiacos meant that, barring a run of league results that currently looks beyond their capabilities, Arsenal’s best chance of success this season is in the FA Cup.
On paper, their fifth-round tie should have been easy going with Pompey mired in League One nowadays. Simple stuff, but the intangibles ahead of the game all went against the stereotype of ‘Arsenal’.
Portsmouth are aggressive, their fans never stop – Ronaldinho vouched that they’re among the best in world football – and the off-shore winds give the place a real Stoke City vibe (just as well that Tony Pulis was in attendance for radio commentary).
Wider perception notes that Arsenal just haven’t been able to shake is that for all of their quality and for all of the glitz and glamour they bring, they’re still soft.
The feeling from within certain corners at Portsmouth was that they wanted to attack the framed Fratton End first in order to race into an early lead – the idea that Liverpool’s Kop can suck the ball in when they need a goal is a belief shared with Pompey’s equivalent.
When Arsenal made a hash of Steve Seddon’s third-minute cross, it looked for all the world that the hosts may have got their wish, and were unfortunate to go into half-time trailing from Sokratis’ neat finish – they matched their visitors shot for shot before the break.
Portsmouth’s attack became a little disjointed and lacking in cutting edge when it mattered – Marcus Harness was notably selfish at times, trying to fool Sokratis and David Luiz with the same shimmy over and over – but they were at least frustrating Arsenal, with Matteo Guendouzi going into the book for petulantly placing the ball down for a free-kick toward the end of the first half (a childish move regardless of Mike Dean’s presence).
Eddie Nketiah added a second soon after the interval to ease fears that Portsmouth could claw their way back into it – Arsenal have won by more than the one goal just twice under Mikel Arteta.
Pompey threatened to make it a competitive match and battle, but the Gunners did well to keep them at arm’s length, to not get drawn into the confrontational atmosphere on the pitch and from the stands.
Arsenal’s youngsters coped well in an environment they wouldn’t be used to playing in, a less life-changing one but more eye-opening – home fans poked the bear to see what would happen, but they were brushed aside. Still, could have been a mauling.
The pressure was completely on the Gunners to ensure their season was still salvageable once they started heading back up to London – mission accomplished, job done, et cetera, et cetera.
Quality ultimately told because Portsmouth are in playoff contention in League One and Arsenal are midtable in the Premier League, but for the latter, at least they’re still alive and kicking this season.