The fact Portsmouth finished Saturday’s game with five strikers on the pitch only strengthened the point that this was indeed a must-win game. Avram Grant knew it, the players knew it and the supporters knew it. So as Salif Diao rifled in Stoke’s dramatic late winner, everyone inside Fratton Park knew that was that – the final nail in the coffin.
The sorrow and devastation reeked around the stadium after Pompey’s latest loss, with all inside safe in the knowledge that their seven-year Premier League stay was almost certainly over. It was almost fitting that the match that practically decided the team’s fate was so encapsulating of their season as a whole. There were again plenty of positives, mainly in the first half, in which Pompey played some excellent football. Jamie O’Hara ran the show in the engine room as the 4-3-3 system was welcomed back with unmitigated success. However, all that good work was undone – largely thanks to abysmal defending and a sprinkle of bad luck. Frederic Piquionne’s half-time exit was unfortunate but one has to think that his replacement, Kanu, was a wrong choice. The Nigerian’s perennial lack of mobility means Pompey sacrifice any presence or out-ball. With Piquionne, he will battle and occupy defenders, while Kanu needs the ball on his foot and nowhere else. He is admittedly, something of a genius when on the ball, but without it the team are basically a player down. Perhaps bringing on John Utaka for Piquionne – and switching Aruna Dindane to the central striker position with Utaka on the right – would’ve worked better, as at least the Ivorian puts himself about and is a similar player to Piquionne, thus not changing the emphasis of the attacks.
However, that wasn’t necessarily where the game was lost. If Grant was a man for the Fergie-esque hairdryer treatment then Marc Wilson would’ve been suffering a similar fate to that of Manchester United’s Jonny Evans in Milan last week. It must be said that Wilson is young and is probably in above his head due to circumstances beyond his and Grant’s control. However, his defending for both Stoke goals was amateurish and frankly woeful. Robert Huth’s header was a replica of Richard Lambert’s last week, in the way he easily out-muscled Wilson and could simply head home without even jumping. The simplicity would’ve been infuriating for Grant and Wilson’s lame attempt at a tackle as Ricardo Fuller strolled through to set up Diao in stoppage time would only have angered the Israeli further. But even for Wilson’s blatant shortcomings on Saturday evening, he is as much a victim of circumstance rather than actually being a bad defender. He lacks the required experience for Pompey’s current plight and he is something of a rabbit caught in the headlines when faced with big, muscular strikers – again, a situation that Grant is forced to throw him into due to player sales and the subsequent lack of options.
But now the on-field chatter comes to unanimous halt for the time being. The survival fight is surely gone and the focus will now almost solely be on securing the club’s very future. Indeed, even Grant said as much in the aftermath of the latest defeat while the word ‘miracle’ was bandied about a great deal in the ensuing 48 hours. So attention is firmly on Peter Storrie and whether his recent statements come to fruition. Word is that a South African-based consortium is on the verge of a takeover, but there will be no cheers on the south coast until its all signed, sealed and delivered – and even then the fans can only wait and hope that this time it’s the real deal. Noises coming out of the club this week suggest there’s still plenty of life left in the south coast outfit yet, with apparent interest from a back-up group in case the South African one falls through. Even current owner Balram Chainrai has suggested he would step in to save the club if the worst became apparent.
It’s all a sorry end to the club’s top-flight stay, which could still end in a far worse fate than just relegation. That dream day in 2003 seems a long way off now. All that has gone in between will have been a great adventure for the Pompey fans – most of whom hadn’t even seen the club in the top-flight. But the dream was realised and the fans were thrilled with trips to Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge. But on Saturday at 7pm they sat, cold and wet, watching the dream die. It all turned sour in the end – now begins the rebuilding process.
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