After last weekend’s four-goal drubbing of Wigan, hopes are high heading into the tasty clash against another Lancashire side, Blackburn. The trip to Ewood Park represents a decent chance of Portsmouth keeping up their recent run of form, with four points from the last two league fixtures. However, Pompey tend to struggle at Ewood and with Sam Alladyce’s men coming off the back of four straight home wins, Paul Hart’s men will have to be at their best.
Two men who Hart will be counting on once more will be the revitalised strike duo of Aruna Dindane and Frederic Piquionne. After firing blanks for the opening months of the season, both netted three goals in two games last week, and there is a feeling the summer arrivals will now come good and fire the Blues to safety. The pair look certain to keep their places for Saturday, and their workmanlike and physical style will certainly be suited to the relentless nature of a Sam Alladyce team. The former Bolton manager is trying to create something similar to what he had when he managed the Trotters for the best part of a decade, as he looks to the physicality of the likes of Christopher Samba, Franco Di Santo and Steven Nzonzi, while gambling on old stalwarts like Michel Salgado.
Hart will know what to expect at Ewood Park. Blackurn’s quality comes mainly from the wide areas, in El Hadji Diouf and Morten Gamst Pedersen, while David Dunn makes things tick in an advanced central-midfield role. Pompey’s full-backs, Steve Finnan and Tal-Ben Haim, will be vital in stemming Rovers’ attacks but, with both so adept defensively (although lacking going forward), Hart will be relatively confident his men will be solid. But the problems start when Blackburn’s full-backs get involved (which they aren’t shy of doing), leaving Finnan and Ben Haim largely exposed.
Since the end of August, Hart has stuck almost rigidly to his midfield diamond formation which has seen numerous positive displays. But – as stated in previous Club Focuses – it leaves the side desperately short of width and cover in full-back areas. It was something Tottenham heavily exposed last month when Aaron Lennon and Vedran Corluka ran riot down Pompey’s left, and if the two wide central-midfielders – Hassan Yebda and Michael Brown – don’t protect the full-backs properly, it may well prove a disappointing day in Lancashire. Blackburn like to get balls into the box as quickly and frequently as possible, so the stemming the wide men is paramount.
However, the main man at the forefront of Hart’s mind will be the in-form David Dunn. The former Birmingham man has been in sparkling form this term, and it is clear Blackburn’s play comes mainly through him. Jamie O’Hara now seems Hart’s preferred choice in the holding role and the all-action midfielder will be the man charged with tracking and minimizing the talented playmaker’s involvement. If Dunn gets the freedom and space he craves, he could well prove the match-winner. Needless to say it will not be a game for the faint-hearted. Pompey’s midfield is not short of tenacity so Hart will feel confident his troops can handle the battle.
But while much of this game can be expected to play out in the middle third of the pitch, Dindane and Piquionne’s confident mood will cause plenty of problems for the Blackburn defence. Both Samba and Ryan Nelsen lack any real mobility – something both strikers are likely to prey on. In the air, the duo stand no chance, but in the channels and, indeed, in behind the centre-backs, will provide plenty of joy for the front men.
But while Hart ponders his tactics, he will know a defeat would be huge setback against a side who are also sat in the bottom three. Hart is renowned for his lack of adventure on the road, so Pompey fans will be expectant of a compact, solid display where a draw is the aim and a win is a bonus. Hart has been criticised for this approach but in the long run it is the smart option. Handing cheap points to rivals will damage the Blues no end. So if you’re going to Ewood Park this Saturday, expect two dogged teams, fighting and scrapping in an all-action battle, not short of tenacity but short on attractiveness. Who cares how ugly it is, as long those three vital points head south this Saturday, no-one at Pompey will be complaining.