As Kevin-Prince Boateng saw his tamely struck spot-kick saved by Thomas Sorensen on seven minutes, there was only going to be one result. Paul Hart’s troops will be devastated as they can yet again feel hard done by – deserving of at least a point.
In the lastClub Focus, this writer stated how a trip to the Britannia is “the ultimate Premier League challenge”, as the infamous aerial bombardment and relentless crosses serve as a huge test for any side. However, if you’d have told Hart his side would deal with Stoke’s threat – both aerially and on the ground – quite so easily, he would have expected three points. But the fact is his side had the chance to take a vital lead whilst also controlling much of the game, only to throw it away with one loss of concentration. As Stoke strung together a few quick passes on the edge of Pompey’s 18-yard box, the defenders stood off, failing to even register any kind of challenge – leaving former Blues striker Ricardo Fuller the chance to turn and fire home a harsh winner.
Hart rightfully assessed afterwards:“I feel very hard done by, but then again we had a penalty and you expect to score it and after that I don’t think our goalkeeper has had a shot to save. I couldn’t see Stoke scoring, I thought our defenders were excellent, the midfield was superb, perhaps we could have created a little bit more in the last third. But overall I thought we were in control.” Pompey fans have heard this before. There have been numerous good performances, but the facts are plain to see. Ten defeats in 13 Premier League encounters and the club are now in danger of being cast adrift at the bottom with a tough fixture list approaching. Hart could correctly argue that his side deserve another six points – which would lift them out of the drop-zone – but his side have hit the self-destruct button on too many occasions this term, and Boeteng’s penalty miss rather summed up their efforts in front of goal this season.
Indeed, Hart chose to change things up top for the trip to Stoke as Kanu replaced Frederic Piquionne in a bid to add a bit more craft in the final third. However, the Nigerian’s input was never close enough to goal and, although his ability at keeping the ball and bringing players into play was there for all to see, Pompey failed to get him into any dangerous positions around the penalty box. In all honesty, Pompey were altogether impotent up front as Aruna Dindane toiled his way through much of the game while Boateng failed to really influence it further up the field. The fact that former Pompey hitman Jermain Defoe netted half of Portsmouth’s goal total in just 36 minutes on Sunday only rubs salt into the already stinging wounds. But while the attackers failed to impress, the midfield and defenders were excellent – as stated by Hart himself.
Any pre-match worries about Marc Wilson’s capabilities against the physical threat of Fuller and James Beattie were unfounded, and Hart’s decision to bring in the now-fit Hermann Hreidarsson and switch Tal Ben-Haim to right full-back gave Pompey superb solidarity and genuine aerial ability. Jamie Ashdown – in for the injured David James – performed admirably behind his rock-solid back four, until they let their good work come undone through one piece of slackness. Defending for 99% of the game is not enough at this level and Fuller’s (and Stoke’s) ruthlessness only hardened that point further.
It all leaves Pompey licking their wounds once again as they contemplate a host of ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. It goes without saying that if Hart is to rescue this sinking ship, his side has to sharpen up in the final third, and when opportunities do present themselves, they have to be taken. Sunday’s game can now be added to the ‘deserved more’ pile that is becoming worryingly large. Manchester United now await on Saturday, meaning Hart and his deflated troops must regroup – fast. A positive result just might kick-start a flailing season, while a heavy loss could signal the end of Hart’s beleaguered reign.