It has been a sour-tasting few weeks on the south coast as Paul Hart and his troops were forced to sit through this week’s international break with the weight of regret and anger on them from their last outing at Blackburn.
The way Hart’s men threw away an opportunity, not only to beat one of their relegation rivals, but also to climb temporarily out of the drop zone has left a bitter taste. The second half capitulation served as a timely reminder of the sticky mess the club are still in, despite a decent run of form prior to the Ewood shambles. But as Hart tries to put the disappointing defeat behind him, he knows there is no better place to put the harsh lessons they learnt in Lancashire than that of a trip to the Britannia Stadium. The likes of James Beattie and Ricardo Fuller will provide a similar threat to the one that tore the Pompey defence apart at Blackburn in second period – Benni McCarthy and Jason Roberts the harassers that day – and in Beattie and Fuller, the Potters have arguably an even more potent and physical threat.
Marc Wilson, who has fared so well since his introduction at centre-back this season, will be in the firing line once more and no doubt Hart will have learnt a lot about his young defender since Roberts gave him such a torrid time. Although it must be said Wilson was not directly at fault for any of the three second half goals, he clearly struggled with Roberts’ pace and power and he will have to prove he is up to the task on Sunday if Pompey are going to come away with anything from the Brittania. Hart did receive a boost during the international break as fans’ favourite Hermann Hreidarsson is now fit and available for selection. Whether the Iceland international will be thrown straight into battle is unlikely, however he would surely relish the aerial onslaught Stoke provide, so he offers an interesting option for Hart.
In other news, perennial troublemaker Sulaiman Al Fahim has found his voice again this week as Pompey’s finances were again called into question. Many thought Al Fahim had gone into hiding after his empty promises had all but forced him out of the club, but the media-friendly Arab is back and he was quick to give his input wherever it would be heard. Al Fahim has been talking up his plans for a new stadium and new players – Amr Zaki being the player he is lining up – although Hart isn’t interested in the enigmatic Egyptian. But while Al Fahim seeks the attention he feels he warrants, Ali Al Faraj has reportedly netted a £10m loan for the club from Hong Kong businessman Balram Chainrai, which will “put the club on a sure footing.” Reports also suggest Chainrai has already loaned the club £5m to pay last month’s wages, throwing further doubt over Al Faraj’s financial backing. However, it would be harsh to jump to reckless conclusions over the Pompey owner, but while he remains so tight-lipped on his plans and his legitimacy, guess work is all we have at present.
While the board scrambles about trying to sort out the club’s ever-confusing financial problems, Hart knows it is imperative his side bounce back from their last defeat. Pompey face all of the big four in their next nine outings, so bagging points in the other five games is imperative, otherwise the Blues face being cast adrift at the bottom of the table. A trip to Stoke represents the ultimate Premier League challenge, as the Potters’ relentless aerial assault unsettles even the most hardened of Premier League stalwarts. With Pompey’s two centre-backs at 22 and 23 years of age, it will be one of their biggest challenges yet, as much of the visitors’ hopes lay on their shoulders.
If Younes Kaboul and Wilson cannot stand up to the test, Pompey will return home with nothing. If the team defend set-pieces like they did at Blackburn, they will leave empty handed. If the full-backs don’t stop the incoming crosses and the likes of Matthew Etherington are allowed to keep shipping balls into the box, Pompey will almost certainly lose. It is a defensive challenge. One which all at the back should relish. Now is the time for them to stand up and be counted.