It’s been a deflating first week in charge for Avram Grant, as last weekend’s thumping loss to Manchester United was compounded by an emphatic exit from the Carling Cup on Tuesday night.
The Carling Cup offered a genuine chance of silverware for the Blues, especially as the loss against Aston Villa was followed by the Villans being drawn against Blackburn in the semi-final. However, with silverware and a major morale-boost up for grabs, Pompey failed to show up and were convincingly beaten by a strong Villa side. The fact that influential players such as Kevin-Prince Boateng, Jamie O’Hara, David James and Aruna Dindane all sat out – due to various reasons – shouldn’t go unnoticed, but at a time when Pompey were desperate for the second string to deliver a confidence-boosting result and push their case for a place in the relegation battle, they all decided to give a no-show performance.
It must have been a depressing sight for the Fratton faithful watching Richard Hughes and Michael Brown try anchor the midfield. For all their hard work and endeavour, neither is at all comfortable on the ball and their passing on the night was nothing short of dreadful. Villa looked a level above Grant’s men as they moved the ball around with ease, while the hosts continuously gave away possession and whose attacking edge was a total embarrassment. One had to feel sorry for Danny Webber, who was given a rare chance to impress but instead spent the night battling with Richard Dunne and Carlos Cuellar for aerial balls which he had absolutely no chance of winning, while his numerous runs went ignored. Now, this writer wouldn’t call Webber a top quality striker, but he is as natural a finisher as the club has at present, and games like last night will do nothing for the confidence of a player who could well offer the side a great deal.
Other disappointments included Nadir Belhadj, who despite numerous errors earlier in the season is still a terrace favourite, but his pace and directness is meaningless if his end product continues to be so wasteful. The much-maligned John Utaka showed just why he is so maligned on the south coast as he coasted his way through the game in which he was totally anonymous, although he wasn’t helped by the lack of quality behind him. Anthony Vanden Borre and Hassan Yebda put in decent displays on a night so short on positives, but it is probably best if Grant and his coaching staff write this one off.
What Grant can’t just disregard is the worrying defensive traits that seems to have followed him to the club. Under Hart, Pompey were disciplined – arguably too disciplined – and the side showed a reasonable solidarity at the back, albeit sacrificing numbers at the other end. However, Grant has started his reign with two four-goal hauls against him and the defence looked totally void of any organisation and leadership on Tuesday night. Pompey’s lack of quality at the business end of the field means the defence have to be water-tight to give this Portsmouth attack any chance of winning their side a game. The backline clearly misses the authority and presence James offers, but with the England No 1 currently struggling with injury – and a doubt for Saturday – the defence needs to step it up.
And Saturday will be the ideal opportunity for that in Pompey’s must-win clash with Burnley. The Clarets are Pompey’s best hope of a win before the New Year, so the three points are a must or the Blues will surely be cut adrift before the year is out. No-one needs telling of Burnley’s desperate away record and figures such as a single point return from seven away outings coupled with the astonishing statistic of 25 goals conceded in those games, will leave Grant licking his lips. However, Burnley sit a comfortable 12th in the table and 10 points above Grant’s side, and with Owen Coyle’s men currently scoring goals for fun – as well as coming in off the back of a stirring late rally at West Ham plus the added confidence of stealing a point at Manchester City – will leave Coyle confident his side could finally put their away day blues behind them.