A tale of two former Arsenal captains. Both were beaming with smiles at the end, although why Tony Adams, the Portsmouth manager, was competing with the match-winner, William Gallas, in the Cheshire cat stakes was a surprise. Especially as he had just seen his team fall to a fourth consecutive league defeat, continue their slide down the table and is dealing with bids for a host of his star players.
Adams is an Arsenal legend. Twenty-two years at the club, 14 as captain, a lorry-load of trophies, medals, honours and a place in the club's pantheon. Plus he has made no secret that he would like to one day succeed Arsène Wenger while the supporters yearn for a leader in his mould.
Yesterday Adams had to make do with a handshake and two bows to the home supporters — one as he took his seat before kick-off, the other as he lingered on the pitch just a little too long at the end while the relieved Arsenal supporters chanted his name. "It's great, isn't it?" Adams said. "It is fabulous."
Such adulation, he said, had to be earned and there is no doubt he has worked hard for that honour. But he is in charge of Portsmouth now and whatever his protestations – he was right to say his team worked hard, showed commitment, were organised, did their jobs – his career at the club is heading in the wrong direction. Results are indisputable. A little more buckling under, a little less enjoyment at being back at the club he so rightly and evidently loves may have been called for in the circumstances.
Wenger said all the right things about Adams and his qualities as a leader, a player and a manager. He would do. But he would also have been mightily relieved, despite his claims that his team, running out of steam, squeezed out the three points that restored them to fourth, ahead of Aston Villa who play on Tuesday.
It was a performance of smoke and mirrors, huff and puff and, at times, going through the motions. Responsibility was too easily passed on to someone else. The brutal truth is the points would have been shared but for a gaffe from Portsmouth goalkeeper David James when he – for the third time in the second half – flapped at a cross, this time a free-kick from Denilson, allowing Gallas to head, deliriously, into the net and earn a kind of redemption.
"It was a big three points for us," said Wenger, who then went on to attack the criticism his struggling players have faced. "Never has a team, since I've been here, got so much bad publicity," he said. "I don't think it is fair. It's a team that needs the most support because they are the youngest since I have been here."
It is true but, certainly, that has been by his design even if he has also been hampered by injury. The fragility of Robin van Persie was also again exposed yesterday with the Dutch striker confined to the bench after it was deemed that two games in three days was too much for him.
In his absence Arsenal flailed around. They could have fallen behind, with Peter Crouch rising above Gallas to thump a cross from Marc Wilson against a post, although only an alert intervention from Sylvain Distin prevented Emmanuel Adebayor from scoring after he had rounded James and evaded Sol Campbell.
For the first half, that was it. Wenger reorganised after the break with Samir Nasri playing behind Adebayor as Nicklas Bendtner was sent to the wings. It had an effect. Suddenly James was fumbling – a corner from Nasri, with the impressive Papa Bouba Diop, who was later carried off with medial ligament damage and may be out of several months, blocking after Mikaël Silvestre had headed goalwards, and a punch straight to Adebayor whose shot went wide .
With only a few minutes left, Adams brought on Jermain Defoe but it had an air of resignation about it. The manager said the striker, set to be the subject of a January transfer, was angry at being left out. He didn't look it. But then neither did Adams look too upset at defeat either.
Goal: Gallas (81) 1-0. Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Silvestre, Clichy; Eboué (Vela, 66), Denilson, Diaby (Ramsey, 75), Nasri; Bendtner, Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Touré, Van Persie, Wilshere, Gibbs. Portsmouth (4-5-1): James; Wilson, Distin, Campbell, Belhadj; Nugent (Defoe, 88), Davis, Diop (Pamarot, 90), Hughes (Mvuemba, 50), Kranjcar; Crouch. Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), Hreidarsson, Little, Kanu. Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire). Booked: Portsmouth Hughes. Man of the match: Diop. Attendance: 60,092.