Henry warms up for the big guns

Arsenal 3 - Portsmouth 0
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The Independent Football

Rarely, under Arsène Wenger, has the Premiership been an inconvenience in between more important dates. Especially not in early March. But such is life at Arsenal right now. With Bayern Munich on Wednesday and Bolton Wanderers next weekend, it's the cups, and only the cups, that can salvage a season of rich promise quickly transforming into maddening disappointment.

Rarely, under Arsène Wenger, has the Premiership been an inconvenience in between more important dates. Especially not in early March. But such is life at Arsenal right now. With Bayern Munich on Wednesday and Bolton Wanderers next weekend, it's the cups, and only the cups, that can salvage a season of rich promise quickly transforming into maddening disappointment.

Not that Portsmouth provided more than just a warm-up act. It is 50 years since they won at Highbury, a record preserved last season by Robert Pires's slyness, and, on this form, it will be a century before they do so again. The season's end cannot come soon enough especially as, with eight defeats in 10 games, they are dropping like a stone. Or even a Steve Stone.

The nightmare of being caught by a resurgent Southampton is suddenly rearing its head. "We have 30 points at the moment and it's not enough to earn the right to play in this division next season," admitted coach Joe Jordan afterwards. He is right. They need to regroup, rethink and find some leadership fast. And, if they persist in playing the appalling Kostas Chalkias in goal, they should be reported to the Premier League for fielding a weakened team. He is a whole new kind of Greek tragedy... or a Greek bearing gifts. Fill in your own cliché.

Arsenal fielded their own god, of course, and Thierry Henry, recovered from a sore Achilles, helped himself to a hat-trick, his first of the season, to take his tally to 26. However, it is not goals against Portsmouth - or the two he garnered against Crystal Palace in the last League match - which will dispel the theory that he is a fast-track bully. He needs a brace against Bayern to do that, although, given Arsenal's obvious defensive frailty, even that may not be enough.

Indeed, despite Portsmouth's anaemic lack of ambition, it could have been so different if Yakubu Aiyegbeni's header, when he was let in by Philippe Senderos, had dipped under, rather than against, the crossbar after just 14 minutes.

Arsenal's defences suffered further depletion. A thigh injury means that Pascal Cygan will miss the Champions' League tie. Wenger acknowledged the fillip of victory and - almost as crucially for him - a successive clean sheet, only their second in the League this year. There was also the satisfaction of clawing back two points on Manchester United in the competition for second place without playing that well. "It's an ideal result," Wenger said. But he acknowledged that Bayern will be a different ball game by adding: "But the opposition will not be exactly the same." Indeed they will not.

But neither will his line-up. The cavalry - Dennis Bergkamp, Jose Antonio Reyes and, possibly, Edu - is coming and Wenger will not have to field, as he did yesterday, six players aged 21 or under, whose application he described as "fantastic". It was men against boys - except the men looked over the hill.

Quincy Owusu-Abeyie was given a first Premiership start and was also awarded the first chance but he dragged a shot from Patrick Vieira's lay-off wide before, as half-time approached, the Dutchman released substitute Lauren, who pulled the ball back to Henry. Scandalously unmarked, he chose his spot and also benefited from a deflection off Arjan de Zeeuw to beat Chalkias.

The Portsmouth captain had earlier headed over when he was left unattended by Kolo Touré. Vieira should have added a second when the hapless Chalkias dropped the ball at his feet from a corner that he needlessly conceded. Instead Vieira scooped over from six yards.

It merely delayed the inevitable. Eight minutes after the restart, Mathieu Flamini barrelled into a tackle, the ball ran to Vieira, who surged forward and slipped a pass to Henry. He did not have to break stride and calmly dinked, left-footed, over the goalkeeper.

Yakubu could have provided a nervy finish had he squeezed a shot inside, rather than narrowly past, the near post from Lomano LuaLua's cross.

With five minutes to go, Henry was blocked off on the edge of the area. He took the free-kick and curled it in right-footed. Chalkias merely helped the ball into the net. It summed up his day. "I can't say we deserved a point," Jordan admitted. He was right. Arsenal will hope for similar charity on Wednesday.

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