A Thierry Henry hat-trick, taking his goal tally for the season to 26, and a second successive clean-sheet, encouraged Arsenal ahead of the task they face against Bayern Munich on Wednesday, but the defensive uncertainty that plagued them in the first leg of their Champions' League tie, and for much of the League season, remains.
The critical absence of Sol Campbell and now the loss of Pascal Cygan with a thigh strain means that Arsène Wenger was down to the bare bones when announcing that Lauren, Kolo Touré, Phillipe Senderos and Ashley Cole will make up his back line against the Germans. "There are no other alternatives," the Arsenal manager said after a lop-sided victory over Portsmouth, who are in danger of slipping into the relegation zone after losing eight of their last nine League matches.
Since Bayern are likely to employ tactics similar to the midfield stifling that served Portsmouth well enough before and after Henry gave Arsenal the lead in the 39th minute, and will bring a greater goal threat to Highbury, there was plenty of whistling in the wind after a 3-0 victory gave the reigning champions the belief that they can press on and finish above Manchester United in second place.
Looking for positives after a season that began to fall apart when Arsenal's unbeaten run of 49 games was brought to a shuddering halt by Manchester United at Old Trafford, the Arsenal manager added: "We haven't conceded today and we didn't concede against Sheffield United. We had five players aged under 21 in the team, and the maturity they showed was fantastic. We haven't had the season we were looking for but an upside has been the opportunity for our younger players to show their promise."
With Dennis Bergkamp, Edu, Jose Antonio Reyes and possibly Robert Pires (the Frenchman will have a fitness test today) available, Arsenal will be represented by a much more experienced line-up but a great deal will depend on Henry's reaction to a troublesome Achilles injury. "Obviously, Thierry is a big player for us," Wenger said. "He is a world champion, a League champion, a cup winner. So far, he has missed out on the Champions' League but he has a good record in it and it is good for his confidence that he will go into the game having scored three goals."
With Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini and Gaël Clichy all in the line up and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie making his Premiership debut, Arsenal surely sent out one of the youngest sides in the club's history. However, the present is uppermost in Wenger's mind, and it was Henry who proved to be the difference between the two teams, and it is Henry who will carry Arsenal's main hope this week if they are to recover from the 3-1 deficit that resulted from shambolic defending in Germany.
The cavalier approach Portsmouth adopted under Harry Redknapp has been cast aside by Joe Jordan, the emphasis now on a work ethic, with a hustling five-man midfield. From the start, Steve Stone and Patrick Berger applied pressure to Patrick Vieira and Flamini, leaving Giannis Skopelitis to sweep up in front of the solid back four. Although rich in promise, Owusu-Abeyie found the pace of the Premiership too much for him, leaving Henry to provide the main goal threat.
When Arsenal were again exposed on their right flank, Ayegbeni Yakubu sent a header crashing against the crossbar with the central defenders and goalkeeper Jens Lehmann all over the place. A goal then might have had a decisive effect on the game, but five minutes before the interval Henry sparked into life. Owusu-Abeyie played Lauren, on as a substitute, in behind the left side of Portsmouth's defence and the full-back's cut-back was swept into the net by Henry off Arjen De Zeeuw, who beat the ground in frustration.
Portsmouth were now left with the dilemma of maintaining their shape or providing more close support for their lone raider Yakubu. They chose to keep things as they were. Another Arsenal goal, eight minutes into the second half gave them a mountain to climb. Flamini broke up a Portsmouth move in midfield, Vieira drove on to find Henry and the shot across Kostas Chalkias into the far corner was in the category of perfect finishes.
If less effective than they had been in the first half, Portsmouth raised themselves again through their most dangerous attacker Lomano LuaLua who sent in a low cross from the left. Gary O'Neil's dummy wrong-footed the Arsenal defence and Yakubu side-footed narrowly wide from six yards.
Completing his hat-trick with a curling free-kick that Chalkias reached but could not prevent from finding the net, Henry has at least got the taste for a rescue act on Wednesday, although the difficulties Arsenal again found when called upon to deal with crosses remain Wenger's biggest worry.
For Portsmouth the situation is beginning to look grim. "We've set the usual target of 40 points," Jordan growled. "We have 30, and I know that's not enough to stay in this division."
Goals: Henry (39) 1-0, Henry (53) 2-0, Henry (86) 3-0.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Touré, Cygan (Lauren, 24), Senderos, Cole; Flamini, Vieira, Fabregas (Ljungberg, 78), Clichy; Henry, Owusu-Abeyie (Van Persie, 74). Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Eboué.
Portsmouth (4-5-1): Chalkias; Griffin (Primus, 27), De Zeeuw, Stefanovic, Taylor; O'Neil, Stone, Skopelitis, Berger (Kamara, 70), LuaLua; Yakubu. Substitutes not used: Hislop (gk), Fuller, Mezague.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Portsmouth Primus, Stefanovic.
Man of the match: Henry.
Attendance: 38,071.Reuse content