As 5pm passed on February 1, 2010, every Pompey fan drew a rather large sigh of relief. That was until around 17.30 when it was confirmed that Stoke had sealed a £3.25m deal for hot-shot keeper Asmir Begovic.
Begovic has won many admirers during his two-month stint as Pompey’s No.1 keeper and the news of this latest sale in the long line of asset stripping, strikes as a cruel blow for all involved. The Canadian-born keeper has played a vital role in many of the Blues recent results – none more so than last Tuesday’s stunning display against West Ham and the home win over Burnley two months previous. Both games were hugely important relegation scraps and Begovic’s countless superb stops went a long way to securing points in both matches. Begovic’s move will not only displease Fratton Park goers but also the player himself who was visibly enjoying his time in the keeper’s jersey, which will now be swapped for a Stoke City tracksuit and more bench-warming duties – for the time being anyway. What’s more, want-away keeper David James looks set to reclaim his No.1 shirt but he has been a long way off his top form this term and a far cry from Begovic’s standard this season. Indeed a costly fumble on Sunday at Eastlands handed the hosts a corner right on half-time, which Vincent Kompany rose to head home, all but ending the contest.
On the plus side, Begovic was the only deadline day casualty – although David Nugent did extend his loan at Burnley until the end of the season and Younes Kaboul left the day before. It at least means Avram Grant can pick up his downtrodden squad with the chances of survival still there – albeit slim. Keeping hold of Nadir Belhadj, Papa Bouba Diop and Tal Ben-Haim will keep those slim hopes just about alive and the return of Jamie O’Hara is another positive. Admittedly, the absence of any goalscorer, a replacement for Kaboul or a worthwhile winger leaves the squad far too thin, but at least Grant knows what he has to work with and can now get back to matters on the pitch.
Talking of matters on the pitch, Grant and his troops are still six points adrift of safety after a sloppy yet undeserved defeat at Manchester City. In what was an altogether dire game of football, the visitors showed all the fight and character needed for this side to stay in the league. Unfortunately, they succumbed to two moments of amateurish defending, handing City a comfortable win.
It was a game that stunk of Pompey under their early season tutelage of Paul Hart. The performance and desire was most certainly there, but errors and a shade of bad luck contributed to another damaging defeat. Ben-Haim was the main culprit this time as he inexcusably attempted to play Emmanuel Adebayor offside for the opening goal, only for the experienced defender to forget to tell his fellow centre-half, leaving the Togo international with a clean run on goal. The Israeli was found wanting for the decisive second goal too, as Kompany out-muscled him to connect with an inswinging corner.
As mentioned earlier, James’ needless fumble that led to the corner also turned out to be a crucial moment. The frustration was etched all over Grant’s face, as he skulked down the tunnel at half-time, especially after his side had created two excellent chances, only to be foiled first by John Utaka’s lack of composure and then the City crossbar. It was a blotch on what had been a good all round display from Utaka too. The Nigerian gave the City backline numerous problems with his direct running in the channels but a lack of support cost him any chance of turning his good work into goalscoring opportunities.
Danny Webber failed to influence proceedings whatsoever, and but for Jamie O’Hara and Anthony Vanden Borre’s lung-bursting surges, Pompey’s attacks largely fizzled out into nothingness. Utaka and O’Hara are quickly establishing themselves as the Blues most vital players – as well as the out-of-form Kevin-Prince Boateng – and after next to zero inwards transfer activity last month, it is left to those three men to drag this side from the mire. But now, after a week of turmoil and distress, a good away display and only half the forecasted fire-sale will perk Pompey fans at least a tad.