Club Focus – Portsmouth – Season defining month

It was written off before the game and it should be written off now. The league’s bottom club were over 20/1 to beat the champions on their own turf, so it was no surprise to see Pompey soundly beaten in Manchester.

The 5-0 trouncing will do nothing to help the ever-dwindling confidence amongst the ranks, but put in perspective, returning home from Old Trafford empty handed doesn’t affect the Blues survival ambitions one bit. Avram Grant even rested a few of his exhausted stars with tonight’s vital clash with Sunderland clearly on the agenda. It was nothing compared to Mick McCarthy’s reserves picking just a few months previous but the importance of the next four games are too important to risk such vital players. Following Sunderland is the tasty trip to St Mary’s for the FA Cup fifth round clash that could potentially lift the downtrodden spirits on the south coast no end. That is followed by a home encounter with Stoke before a trip to Turf Moor to face Burnley in a true basement battle. It has to be said, Pompey can ill afford to lose any of these league matches and need a return of seven points at a minimum if they are to surmount any kind of great escape.

In order for that to happen, some of the side’s experienced names need to start stepping up to the plate. David James had a day to forget at Old Trafford, with the former Liverpool stopper at fault for the first two goals just before the break. Jamo looks a little shot of confidence at present, with Wayne Rooney’s opener epitomising his current mindset. Indeed the in-form England striker was allowed to head in from barely six yards from a relatively looping cross. The marking was largely terrible, but James’ lack of forthrightness in coming for a cross he clearly should have got was there for all to see. After initially stepping out to claim to the cross, he proceeded to back away leaving Rooney with the simplest of tasks. His painfully slow reaction for the second goal all but ended the contest and Grant will know he can not afford such goalkeeping luxuries again in the coming encounters.

Adding to James’ poor display was Tal Ben-Haim. The former Chelsea and Bolton man was made to look rather silly by Dimitar Berbatov as the Bulgarian waltzed around the Israeli for a prolonged amount of time before firing home his side’s fourth goal. It was another unhappy day in Manchester for Ben-Haim after his turbulent day at Eastlands where he was culpable for both City’s strikes that day. Ben-Haim has been somewhat inconsistent in his performances since arriving on the south coast but his experience and leadership is needed more than ever now that Marc Wilson is his fellow centre-half. While Wilson has impressed since his return to the first team set-up, Ben-Haim has been good and bad in equal measure. He is a player who has played at the highest level, and one that has proved he is a top quality defender during his Premier League stay. With Pompey so short of goals and quality at the other end of the pitch, they need the the likes of Ben-Haim and James to take lead and keep the sloppy goals out at their end.

Ben-Haim will certainly need to up his game for the visit of Sunderland who boast the likes of Darren bent and Kenwyne Jones up front. The physical threat of both strikers will cause Wilson plenty of problems so Ben-Haim will have to take control. Wilson took a battering against the physical threat of Jason Roberts late last year and the worry of Jones bullying the young defender is a very real one. Keeping tabs on the Mackems’ dangerous strikers is the key, with the rest of their side so short of confidence. Another worry for Grant will be that of Kevin-Prince Boateng after he limped off at Old Trafford. The Ghanaian has been way short of his early season form, but he remains Pompey’s chief creator and if he is indeed sidelined, Grant will be forced into a rethink.

The dilemmas just keep on coming for the former Chelsea boss and the rest of this month will prove to be his most difficult since coming to England. The phrase ‘must-win game’ is an overused one, but in Pompey’s case, it is a ‘must-win’ month. February may be the shortest of all 12, but it is Pompey’s most pivotal of the season.. Throw in the fact they face being wound up on Wednesday and it’s potentially the most pivotal month in their history.

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