Joe Jordan, the Portsmouth coach, once speculated on an appropriate burial place for his football heart the rival sites were his old hunting grounds of Elland Road, Old Trafford, San Siro and Hampden Park. Not a candidate then, and still less now, was Anfield, where his team's recently awesome record for springing ambushes away from home last weekend crumbled under the brilliance of Fernando Torres.
Jordan now has to work with the Pompey manager, Harry Redknapp, on another intriguing aspect of a team who this season have at times operated brilliantly beyond their weight. It lies in the question of how, before the nosedive on Merseyside, Portsmouth could spread panic away from Fratton Park, then gently subside when they came home?
With Arsenal the visitors on Boxing Day, Redknapp and Jordan agree that they have rarely faced such a demanding task of preparation.
The manager says: "Ultimately there is a point where all the planning in the world cannot stop a team made like Arsenal. It is the most difficult game to prepare for. Their wide people come off the line, they pop up in holes, they rotate the full-backs. They are fantastic. They are intelligent players and they can all play. I don't think it's just a case of Arsne Wenger saying, 'Go here, move there,' it is just players playing the game together and that's what makes them so difficult to pin down."
For Jordan, though, there is a certain relief in the fact that Arsenal in any circumstances tend to play their own game, which was not so much the case when Spurs came to Fratton Park two weeks ago and delivered more evidence that if Portsmouth were lions away from their own den, they were so much more vulnerable in front of their own fans. It was a pattern which had been developing bizarrely after a run of six straight wins on the road, including shattering performances against Sam Allardyce's Newcastle and Martin O'Neill's Aston Villa. Such scalps fed the idea that Portsmouth were indeed threatening to break out of their enhanced status as solid members of the top half of the League, but Jordan points out that such remarkable success produced a seriously testing downside.
"In the wake of those performances, teams like Spurs, Manchester City and West Ham came to us in a state of mind which they would not have had in other circumstances. We would have fancied ourselves strongly to get results against teams like that, but in all cases they were conditioned by the strength of our performances away from Fratton Park. They played with a caution they wouldn't normally have had, not even away from home.
"That, coupled with the high expectations of our fans, created a new kind of pressure on our players. It is something we are working on now and I'm hoping the lads will snap out of the depression they felt at Anfield.
"In the past we would really be pleased with ourselves. Thirty points before Christmas would have been seen as a magnificent effort but now everybody's appetite is sharpened, and not least our own."
Against Arsenal, Nwa-nkwo Kanu's recovery from hamstring problems will be one point of encouragement, especially in view of his desire to remind his old team-mates that he retains both formidable skill and much competitive energy.
Says Jordan: "Kanu brought something extremely valuable to us at Anfield and for a little while I really felt he had brought us back into the game. He is still an extraordinary player and he showed what he has when he laid on our goal for Benjani Mwaruwari. He looked up and saw that Liverpool were a little narrow at the back and that Benjani was wide of them. His ball was perfect."
Today the great challenge will be in dealing with the options Arsenal have so brilliantly added to their game this season. Like Redknapp, Jordan sees an Arsenal game-plan in which Emmanuel Adebayor can serve as both the classic target man his team lacked in the pomp of Thierry Henry and a clever, highly skilled runner in the kind of channels the Frenchman was always eager to find, particularly on the left. However, he still sees in Manchester United the ultimate mark of Premier League strength.
"They have a power that is more widespread than Arsenal's," he says, "and they showed at Liverpool the other day that they have learned to hold off opponents and then do the damage."
Pompey's devastating break-outs at Newcastle and Villa Park persuaded some they were ready for the big league, but it was optimism that Redknapp and Jordan were keen to stifle. Redknapp believes that it is Arsenal who will probably define most intimidatingly the ground that still separates as many as eight aspirants to the elite from the top four. The upwardly mobile set, he points out, have sharply varying levels of player strength, stretching from Spurs by far the best equipped for an outside challenge for the Champions League, in his opinion to Portsmouth, who when the African nations call in their resources will be down to 14 outfield players.
Redknapp's worst fear is that Arsenal will do to his team what a reduced force did to Blackburn the other night. "When you can send a team like they did to Blackburn and kill the opposition you know you have got so much quality. I thought Blackburn would win that game but they were left for dead. We have to avoid that fate."
Jordan believes that if the right amount of work is done, if the wound inflicted by Torres can be healed to some degree, Ports-mouth can indeed make life difficult for the team of such dangerous spontaneity.
"The Manchester Citys and West Hams and Spurs came here with a strong sense of the danger we represented. Arsenal may not be quite so mindful of that. Let's be honest, they have less reason," says the man who would least like his football heart buried at Fratton Park today.Reuse content