It’s only happened once in the Premier League’s 17-year history, but as Portsmouth fans finish devouring their Christmas turkey and begin nursing those Boxing Day hangovers, they will be forced to come to terms with the fact their team is bottom at Christmas – a reality that points towards almost inevitable doom.
Nevertheless, the Fratton Park faithful were handed the perfect Christmas present on Saturday as Pompey overcame a beleaguered Liverpool side to potentially lift themselves off the bottom the following day. West Ham’s battling draw against league leaders Chelsea put pay to that, leaving Avram Grant hoping to replicate a miracle turnaround only seen in the 2004/05 season in the Premier League. That year it was West Brom, and if there’s still any lingering hope for Pompey fans to hang on to, then their stunning escape is certainly that. Indeed the Baggies were five points from safety at Christmas, compared to Pompey’s three, and the West Midlands side hadn’t won since October 2, picking up just three points from a possible 30. Furthermore, a Boxing Day thrashing by Liverpool seemed to have confirmed their fate, but for their fantastic 2005 revival.
Compare all this to Pompey’s current predicament and Blues fans can begin to forget about the ‘bottom at Christmas’ curse and start to believe Grant can drag his side to safety. The Blues have picked up seven points from the previous 12 available and head into a crunch relegation clash with the Hammers on Boxing Day full of confidence. The fact that a single win on December 26 could potentially lift the side out of the bottom three means that Pompey are far from dead and buried despite their rock bottom status. Grant has already proved he has the winning formula, as Saturday’s superb win was again attributed to a battling display, coupled with two quality finishes.
Whatever the Israeli is doing, it seems to be working. Grant continues to use his favoured 4-3-3 system, while changing his personnel on a regular basis. He was rewarded for keeping faith with midweek hero Frederic Piquionne, however, who ran Jamie Carragher ragged in particular, while Nadir Belhadj was a fantastic outlet on the left. While there were plenty of efficient performances across the pitch – Jamie O’Hara and Michael Brown certainly deserve a mention – it was Pompey’s outstanding rear-guard that was so pivotal. Much was made of Marc Wilson’s costly display at Stamford Bridge in midweek and with Tal Ben-Haim performing so well in the same game, Grant had no option but to drop the Irishman as he welcomed back the inspirational Younes Kaboul.
It meant the back four was awash with experience. Hermann Hreidarsson and Steve Finnan have been playing Premier League football for over a decade, while Ben-Haim boasts an impressive CV. With the quality of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard to nullify, all four had to be at their best to keep the Reds at bay. The fact that the visitors only had three note-worthy chances is testament to the fine job all four defenders did, as well as the protective offerings of Brown, O’Hara and Hassan Yebda, who didn’t let Liverpool’s midfield have a second on the ball. It was a game plan carried out to a tee.
For all the tireless endeavour of the back four and the three central midfielders, the wide-men – Belhadj and Kevin-Prince Boateng – were tasked with providing the required quality at the other end of the pitch. With Boateng hugely involved in both goals and Belhadj the scorer of one, both had completed their jobs rounding off a stellar all-round display from the whole side. If Pompey are going to stay in the division, much of the creative onus will be on these two. Indeed, Belhadj had stated last week that he would seek pastures new if he didn’t gain more first team opportunities after playing a bit-part role this season, but his showing on Saturday showed no signs of a player craving the exit door. The Algerian is certainly a weapon when used correctly, especially with Pompey so short on flair and genuine quality.
Belhadj’s comeback just might be the catalyst to aid Pompey’s testing plot against the drop. History is against them but the fight and belief is as strong as ever.