Abou Diaby's rangy frame and African-French background invited comparisons with Patrick Vieira from the moment he arrived at Arsenal in 2006. It seemed unfair and unrealistic to burden a 20-year-old in such a heady manner. But his displays this season have shown the similarities may not be just the fanciful hope of Gunners supporters still longing for their former captain and the talisman of their trophy-laden era.
Had it not been for Cesc Fabregas's majestic 27-minute performance, Diaby would have been man-of-the-match against Aston Villa on Sunday. He was tenacious in the tackle and eager to support an attack that floundered, evidenced by a superb solo effort for Arsenal's final goal in the handsome 3-0 win. It was Diaby's sixth of the season and second in successive games. Coupled with Fabregas taking his tally to 10 - just three short of a career-best 13 achieved in the 2007-08 campaign - it is something Arsene Wenger has welcomed.
"In this [midfield] shape that we have, Diaby and Fabregas can score goals," said the manager. "You have not one, but two who come from a deep position and can score goals. "Diaby looks very good. Since the beginning of the season, I have always played him and he is growing in stature. He's dominant in the fight and he scores goals." With Fabregas out for three weeks with the hamstring strain suffered against Villa, Wenger will want Diaby to lead in midfield against bottom club Portsmouth tonight and demonstrate a level of consistency that marked his idol, Vieira, out as a great player.
But the Arsenal manager has another commander to call upon in Thomas Vermaelen. The Belgian centre-back made a goalscoring impact early on, but has since quietly and efficiently gone about his business in a defence that has kept three clean sheets in the last five games. "He's a very quiet boy, but very determined," added Wenger. "He has a good mix of commitment and focus, and he's relaxed. "That's important when you play at the back. He never panics and panic is contagious. We look solid at the back and there's a good understanding between Thomas and William Gallas. It's given us a good foundation."
Arsenal will need that to continue at Fratton Park in a game Wenger does not want his third-placed side to take for granted as they bid to close the gap on leaders Chelsea. The Gunners dropped two points at Burnley on their last away trip . "I think Portsmouth are in a more difficult situation than Burnley," said Wenger. "I watched them beat Liverpool and it's a difficult place to go. You need to come up with a top performance."
Having beaten Burnley and Liverpool, Portsmouth need to complete a hat-trick of home wins to strengthen their belief in the relegation battle. "We've got to make use of our home form and make Fratton a fortress," said the goalkeeper, Asmir Begovic. "We know we can give anybody a game at home. We've got to take the game to Arsenal and be positive." @Email:email@example.com Portsmouth v Arsenal, KO 11.45pm, Showsports 2