Irresistible Arsenal inspire lofty comparisons

Portsmouth 1 Arsenal 5
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The Independent Football

The venue was grim, a cold patch of corridor outside the gents in the bowels of Fratton Park's ancient main stand, but the talk was lofty. Memories of the Ajax team of Cruyff, Neeskens and Haan, and the Milan of Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten were summoned as media and managers searched for a yardstick with which to measure the quality of Arsenal.

Arsène Wenger, the architect of this awesome dissection of Portsmouth, shied away from such comparisons but admitted those teams especially inspired him. Harry Redknapp, the beaten manger, was happier to comment. Arsenal did remind him of the 1970s Ajax, particularly with their movement. He added of Arsenal: "They are the best team in Europe, probably the best in the world. They have everything except a weakness. They've moved on to another level and I can't see anyone beating them in the Champions' League, never mind the Premiership. They work hard, have pace and ability. They could even win the Boat Race."

Portsmouth had beaten Liverpool here in the last round, after a draw at Anfield, and drew with Newcastle United last week. Arsenal hit the bar in the second minute and were five goals up inside an hour. When Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Freddie Ljungberg were withdrawn after 73 minutes, Fratton Park, recognising class, gave them a standing ovation.

But Arsenal have won nothing yet. This is not a cynical hack's view, it is the watchword of the team. "There's huge potential and it's a fantastic squad," Vieira, the captain, said, "but we have to wait before we can start saying we're a great side or the best Arsenal have had. Football is about winning trophies and we've not won anything. We're doing well but there's still a long way to go."

This attitude, forged, said Vieira, from the pain inflicted by last year's surrender of the title, is the reason Arsenal will win the championship this year and, unless Manchester United can rediscover their poise, the FA Cup. Even another domestic Double will not, however, put Arsenal on a par with the likes of Ajax and Milan. The Dutch club won three successive European Cups in the 1970s, the Italian one reached five finals between 1989 and 1995, winning three. Arsenal have never gone beyond the last eight in Europe's premier club competition. Until they do so, this team can only be regarded as great to watch, not Great.

The former accolade is already confirmed. Wenger's Arsenal are one of the few teams who are worth today's inflated admission prices. After another bad week for football it was, said Wenger, "nice to produce some positive headlines". He added: "We want to give a positive image. We want to be remembered as a team who give pleasure to people who come to watch us and that is what we try to do."

Part of this process has been a conscious effort to curb their indiscipline. Aside from the niggling goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, who managed even in this one-sided massacre to confront three different opponents separately, this has largely succeeded. Not that this development is purely altruistic; being vulnerable to provocation was a footballing weakness as well as an aesthetic one.

This constant striving for improvement is a necessary feature of the best clubs and is another reason why Wenger was not getting carried away. "We can play much better," he said. "That may sound ridiculous when we have won 5-1 but when I watch the tape I will see things that could be improved. There are always things to improve and we have so many young players I feel there is more there."

This is as ominous for the likes of Manchester United as Wenger's team selection was to Portsmouth. "When the teamsheet came in," Redknapp said, "the first name I looked for was Henry. I thought, 'Oh my God. No'."

Arsenal's intent was underlined when Jose Antonio Reyes crashed a shot against the woodwork after 65 seconds. For a while Linvoy Primus kept Arsenal at bay, halting Henry, Ljungberg and Reyes. With on-loan Alexei Smertin's performance suggesting he could soon be pushing for a first-team place at Chelsea, Portsmouth even began to threaten. Arsenal grew frustrated. Then a sweeping move, starting with Lehmann feeding Lauren on the right, and flowing across the pitch, ended with Petri Pasanen diverting a pass to Henry. His finish was of the highest order.

Portsmouth fans looked to history, and a comeback in 1971 that forced a fourth-round replay against Arsenal's first Double-winners. Had Ivica Mornar taken their first chance of the half, from Nigel Quashie's 37th-minute cross, who knows?

Within eight minutes all hope was extinguished. First Quashie lost possession, Edu exchanged passes with Vieira then, with Pasanen static, played in Ljungberg. The hapless Finn then stood off Kolo Touré after Portsmouth failed to clear a corner, allowing the Ivorian to turn and score.

The interval brought little respite. Henry soon accepted Ljungberg's lay-off to pass the ball in from 25 yards. After Arjan De Zeeuw escaped dismissal for a professional foul on Reyes, Jeff Winter presumably taking pity on Pompey, Ljungberg then scored a deflected fifth. Through all this the Portsmouth fans were as magnificent as Arsenal's football. After Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Matthew Taylor had hit the woodwork they were rewarded by Teddy Sheringham's well taken footnote.

The former Spur, having scored at home and away against Arsenal, might wonder what the fuss is all about but Redknapp continued to purr. He concluded: "It's even hard for Chelsea, with all their millions, to catch up when they can't buy Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires. We talk about the European Championship, when we hope England will do well, but add [Zinedine] Zidane and there's four players the French have who are absolutely incredible. Where do you find four to match them?"

Goals: Henry (25) 0-1; Ljungberg (43) 0-2; Touré (45) 0-3; Henry (50) 0-4; Ljungberg (57) 0-5; Sheringham (90) 1-5.

Portsmouth (4-3-1-2): Hislop; Pasanen, Primus, De Zeeuw, Taylor; Smertin, Faye, Quashie (Hughes, 70); Berkovic (Stone, h-t);

Mornar (Sheringham, 78), Yakubu. Substitutes not used: Wapenaar (gk), Harper.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Campbell, Cole; Gilberto, Vieira (Bentley, 73), Edu, Ljungberg (Clichy, 73); Reyes, Henry (Kanu, 73). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Cygan.

Referee: J Winter (Cleveland).

Man of the match: Ljungberg.

Attendance: 20,137.