In Texas Hold’em Poker, the hand Ace/King is referred to as the Anna Kournikova – looks great, but rarely wins. It’s also a fair way to describe Avram Grant’s current Pompey side, who yet again played neat, and at times dominant football, only to come away with nothing for the umpteenth time this season at Fulham on Wednesday night.
For all the hard work, tidy possession and stubborn defending, the embarrassing lack of potency in the final third was the Blues’ blatant downfall. With Fulham boss Roy Hodgson without seven of his first team regulars, Pompey went into the game with a genuine chance of getting their survival bid back on track after a win-less streak that stretches back to the middle of December in the league. Instead, Nadir Belhadj marked his return from the Africa Cup of Nations by gifting the hosts a simple goal while his teammates further up field toiled away in desperation to try to unlock a relatively comfortable Fulham back-line. Indeed, Pompey could still be playing now and still fail to net that vital goal.
Grant was adamant he could drag the Blues to Premier League safety when he initially took over, on the promise he would be able to bring in three or four fresh faces. He now knows a promise from the Ali al-Faraj regime isn’t worth the paper it’s written on and the Israeli has pretty much had to work with what he had, as well as lose a few key players. One area the former Chelsea boss was desperate to plug, was that of a clinical striker. Benni McCarthy and Mido both offered a glimpse of goalscoring prowess before any move was halted by the powers within, leaving Grant with a whole host of forwards whose goalscoring records show no signs of rescuing a beleaguered Pompey. The two front men on Wednesday – Frederic Piquionne and Aruna Dindane – epitomised Pompey’s struggle. Both offered plenty of hustling and harrying but absolutely no threat on goal. John Utaka’s recent renaissance represents a glimmer of quality up top but the Nigerian is an enigmatic quantity, and still one that cannot be relied upon. Utaka’s compatriot Kanu too offers the key to the lock, but the former Arsenal man is an impact substitute (for fitness reasons) and simply cannot be relied upon to carry the goalscoring/creative burden.
But while the strikers barely have a goalscoring bone between them, the line-up behind them clearly doesn’t help. The midfield diamond formation has always been good in giving Pompey a decent foot-hold in a game and on many occasions has helped them dominate matches. However, the rigidity and lack of width makes it very difficult to stretch an opposition defence or draw them out of their comfort zone. The quality of Jamie O’Hara and Kevin-Prince Boateng is stifled by the pure narrowness of Pompey’s play, with the pair resorting to eye-of-the-needle passes or hopeful balls into the channel. It would help if the Blues had a couple of marauding full-backs who could use the space in the channels, but sadly possess none of that kind. Belhadj has the attacking intent and enthusiasm to get involved from full-back but his costly moment of madness has surely put paid to him ever giving a defensive berth again. Indeed, Belhadj struggled throughout the match, with Fulham hitting Damien Duff on their right at every opportunity as they spotted the Algerian’s defensive weakness within minutes of the match.
It’s a difficult balancing act for Grant, who can clearly see the overall benefits of the diamond formation – O’Hara, Hassan Yebda, Angelos Basinas clearly enjoy it – but you get no points for midfield domination. Games are running out now and opportunities to net maximum points like this latest one won’t be presented too many more times. It’s Manchester United next, although Grant can safely write off the Old Trafford visit at the weekend, and turn his attentions to the visits of Sunderland and Stoke in the coming weeks. Only maximum points will do so Grant must find that winning formula, and fast.
In the meantime, Pompey’s manager must again meet the new owners as Hong Kong businessman Balram Chainrai exercised his right to seize control of al-Faraj’s 90% stake after his £17m loan to the club hadn’t been reimbursed. But while Pompey fans sit stunned at the sight of someone who has actually put money into the club, the fact that Chainrai isn’t interested in owning a football club is not so kind on the ears. His aim is to “stabilise” the club and find a new owner before the season is out. Pompey fans can only wait, in hope.