Arsenal's best start to a League campaign for 56 years came to an unexpected halt when they were held by a spirited and well-organised Portsmouth side at sun-basked Highbury yesterday.
The draw means that Arsène Wenger's men have lost their 100 per cent record, although they remain top of the table by a point. It is far too early to talk of troubles for the Gunners, but one cannot help drawing parallels with last year, when they made a blistering start but then dropped vita as the season wore on. "I just think Portsmouth played well," was Wenger's simple verdict. He was right, and while the Premiership new boys will not, as their fans chanted, win the League, relegation is surely not on the cards for the unbeaten Pompey.
Right from the off, Portsmouth showed just why they have made such a bright start. Compact in defence and sharp on the break, Harry Redknapp's motley crew might even have taken the lead inside three minutes, when Andy Faye, who won here in last year's Champions' League competition with Auxerre and was outstanding again yesterday, intercepted a lazy pass by Edu in central midfield before delivering a dangerous cross inside the Arsenal box. Jens Lehmann did well to punch clear, but the ball fell invitingly to Nigel Quashie, who was lurking on the edge of the box. His shot was high and wide, but served as a warning to the Highbury faithful.
Arsenal simply could not get going and, as the minutes ticked on, everyone started to wonder whether the improbable might happen. It certainly looked likely when the Portsmouth central defender Arjan de Zeeuw latched on to a corner just after the quarter-of-an-hour mark, but shot narrowly wide. That miss was acceptable, but Yakubu Aiyegbini's seven minutes later was not. The 20-year-old striker, who did everything else right, was released by Quashie and, profiting from a slip by Sol Campbell, found himself with the freedom of north London to run unopposed on goal. If only the finish, a weak effort that fell into Lehmann's arms, had matched the move.
No matter. Portsmouth just kept going and, with 27 minutes gone, scored the opening goal their intelligent football richly deserved. Sebastien Schemmel played a clever ball in behind Ashley Cole, Steve Stone reached it first before whipping in at the near post. The former Tottenham striker Teddy Sheringham - who else could it have been at Highbury? - was quickest to react and, despite his advancing years, sent a brave diving header into the back of the net.
Portsmouth were cruising towards a half-time lead when, totally against the run of play, Robert Pires was released inside the area by Edu and, having knocked the ball away from the defence, looked to have been tripped by Boris Zivkovic. The referee pointed to the spot, although replays later showed that it was the Frenchman who caught the defender's foot. Thierry Henry, despite being forced to retake the penalty, kept his cool and netted the equaliser. "That was an appalling decision," Redknapp said. "Up until then we'd been in control and that really let them back in." Even Wenger saw the incident and agreed that the award of a penalty was "generous".
Four minutes after the restart, Lauren's deep cross was inexplicably back-heeled by De Zeeuw when the ball was going out for a goal kick. Dennis Bergkamp pounced on the loose ball but his shot was too close to Shaka Hislop. Moments later, Portsmouth went up the other end and very nearly regained the lead, as Yakubu shot just wide of the frame. "He was outstanding," his manager said, "not least because he has been under the weather." When pushed a little, Redknapp explained that the Nigerian is currently suffering from malaria. "I guess that really does qualify as being under the weather, doesn't it?" he joked.
Wenger's players eventually started to exert some sustained pressure and, as the half wore on, the corner count mounted and the chances increased. Bergkamp wriggled free before unleashing a fierce shot which Hislop did well to parry, and Edu managed to place a left-footed free-kick on target from just outside the area. But still Portsmouth held on.
The managers then tried to force the issue by changing the personnel. First, Freddie Ljungberg replaced the ineffectual Edu and then Redknapp brought on Jason Roberts for the tiring Yakubu. With 15 minutes left, Wenger threw on the in-form Sylvain Wiltord and he came close to creating the winner when he cushioned Henry's 79th minute corner into the path of the on-rushing Kolo Touré. The young centre-back was first to the ball but will wonder how he missed the target from all of three yards. It was that sort of day for the misfiring Gunners.
Arsenal 1 Portsmouth 1
Henry pen 40; Sheringham 26
Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 38,052Reuse content