As David Nugent emphatically smashed in a second half brace to secure victory for his new club Burnley in Saturday’s lunch-time kick-off, the travelling Blue Army – awaiting their fixture at Villa Park – could only smile and shake their heads with Fratton Park beginning to feel cursed. That feeling was not helped as Paul Hart’s men gift-wrapped a 2-0 win for their opponents in Birmingham as once again the Blues showed some glimpses of optimism but ultimately fell to yet more defensive errors. Nadir Belhadj was again a culprit as his ridiculous challenge on Stiliyan Petrov gave the hosts a needless penalty from which Pompey never recovered. Tal Ben-Haim was caught cold by Gabriel Agbonlahor just moments later and Pompey went from being solid whilst gaining a real foothold in the match, to totally out of the game within a matter of nine reckless minutes.
Hart correctly pointed out after the match that his side were by no means second best in the rather tepid encounter, but he will be as aware as anyone that if the side continue to make basic errors, Pompey’s Premier League stay will be over. Belhadj continues to be a liability at the back with his silly lunge on Petrov a formality after he had lost out seconds before to the Bulgarian. Whilst the finger will be pointed at Belhadj, the fact that the Algerian is more suited to a left-wing position should be taken into account – although the foul was nothing short of crazy. Belhadj didn’t cover himself in glory for Villa’s second either as he rashly came out of position to attack an aerial ball he was too late for leaving Ben-Haim exposed to the pace of Agbonlahor. The Israeli won’t be happy with the way he dealt with the Villa speedster as he was way too tight and, in trying to nick the ball ahead of the striker, he was duly spun and the game was gone. To be fair to Ben-Haim, he had an excellent game, and along with Younes Kaboul rendered the dangerous John Carew and Agbonlahor impotent – apart from that one incident.
Although Hart was right in stating the defensive errors cost Pompey the match, the former Nottingham Forest boss will again have his tactics called into question as the under-fire coach was once more prone to a negative formation. After a good performance last time out – despite a defeat – many expected the diamond formation to stay following a decent debut. Instead, Hart started with the same personnel as against Bolton last Saturday, but went with the more solid 4-5-1 formation. Not only did this show a distinct lack of adventure – forgivable in Pompey’s current plight – but it left the Blues’ most creative player wide on the left, and largely out of the game. Indeed Kevin-Prince Boateng had a first-half to forget as he stood stranded on the wing, with Tommy Smith doing a similar disappearing act on the other flank. It left Pompey with decent possession in the middle of the park but, when looking for an out ball or any kind of attacking option, the two make-shift wingers were not on hand, leaving lone front-man Frederic Piquionne isolated.
However, in the second-half, Boateng was inspirational as Pompey switched to the diamond midfield once more and, despite the shock of conceding two goals in the last ten or so minutes of the first-half, the visitors controlled much of the second period and created numerous openings. Villa fans will rightly point out that Brad Friedel was largely untroubled but with a bit more quality in front of goal Pompey may well have given themselves a chance of a grabbing a point. Smith was also more involved alongside Piquionne, although did little to quell the questions raised over his abilities at Premier League level.
Hart’s post match words went by way of: “The two defensive mistakes were inexplicable and that has killed the game for us. We shot ourselves in the foot. But I have great belief in the players and feel we will improve.” If Hart has such belief in his side he needs to start showing it. No manager can account for such silly errors but his formation on Saturday showed too much respect to Villa and not enough respect to his own team. With Boateng given a central role, Pompey were able to play some free-flowing football with the midfielders joining the strikers and Boateng linking the play. However it was all too little, too late and Pompey have now set the unwanted record of being the first side in the Premier League to lose all of their opening six fixtures. The performances are getting better and better – it is now time for the results to follow. Next up is the long trip up to Carlisle for some Carling Cup respite. A win could potentially shoot some confidence into the players but defeat would go a long way to totally shattering any lingering confidence still in the side.