What a difference a day makes. On Saturday evening, Portsmouth were mourning a long-expected relegation from the Premier League. 24 hours later, they booked their place in the FA Cup final and the end do a dismal, depressing season at Fratton Park will be given a rare ray of light by a second trip to Wembley in a matter of weeks.
Only the most cold-hearted of football cynics – or perhaps a Southampton fan – could not have raised a smile when Kevin Prince-Boateng’s late spot kick confirmed victory over Tottenham Hotspur. Pompey rode their luck at times – the penalty award itself was debatable while David James’ wry grin after Spurs had a goal disallowed at 1-0 spoke volumes – but for what their fans, players and management have endured this season they more than deserved the good fortune that came their way. There was more to the win than chance, however, with Portsmouth’s defence as a whole entering a colossal performance – and Ricardo Rocha in particular. The Portuguese defender, one of Pompey’s ex-Tottenham contingent, was magnificent in combating everything Spurs threw at the Portsmouth goal and made a vital contribution to Pompey’s progression but an even more super-human effort will be required from Rocha and company to bring the famous old trophy back to the South Coast. Just reaching the final is success in itself for Portsmouth, but prize money of £900,000 for the semi-final and a further £900,000 guaranteed – with the winners receiving £1.8m – will bring a smile to the administrator’s face and hopefully make life easier for Avram Grant and his beleaguered squad.
Spurs’ reaction to the defeat could well define their season – will 2009/10 be remembered as the year the North London side finally broached the top four or will it be another year of inglorious failure? Comfort for Spurs could not be found from Sunday’s other results – Liverpool may have dropped points at home to Fulham but Manchester City’s decimation of their Birmingham counterparts reaffirmed the Blues’ advantage in the fourth place fight. The semi-final defeat has not only robbed Spurs of a chance of cup glory but also Wilson Palacios for the next two games – a infinitely more damaging blow to their immediate aspirations. To stand any chance of pegging City back Spurs cannot afford defeat in their next game – at home to Arsenal – and with the Gunners’ title challenge re-energised by Manchester United’s draw at Blackburn Rovers, Arsene Wenger’s players will be going all out to leapfrog Sir Alex Ferguson and make it a two-horse race with the other FA Cup finalists, Chelsea. Spurs have to come out of the Derby with at least a point since Roberto Mancini’s City now have a four point lead over Harry Redknapp’s outfit with the sides still to meet at Eastlands and the momentum is most definitely not in the capital. After smashing six past Burnley, the Citizens took apart a Birmingham City side noted this season for their defensive strength but who were left helpless as a mix of speed, power and precision fired Mancio’s men further ahead of their fifth-place rivals. The Eastlands club have gotten into the winning habit – perhaps losing to Everton at home was a wake-up call because since then, City have scored 14 goals in three games, conceding just twice.
Burnley also found the scoring touch this weekend, bagging more than two goals in a match for the first time since losing 5-2 against Aston Villa in February – nine games ago. The three points not only curtails any impetus developing at Hull but kindly erases what manager Brian Laws described as the “hardest
At the other end of the table, Chelsea were the big winners in league matters without even playing. Just like their London rivals West Ham, the Blues’ destiny belongs to no one but themselves thanks to Blackburn’s unwavering defensive display at Ewood Park. A point clear with a game in hand and a superior goal difference too, Carlo Ancelotti just needs more of the same from his players to guarantee the title. While a keener-eyed referee would have sent John Terry off for his awful challenge on James Milner – thus depriving Chelsea of their captain for much of the run-in – the No.26 escaped with just a booking and his title-winning experience will be vital to Chelsea as the end of the season draws near. The Italian’s decision to drop either Nicolas Anelka or Didier Drogba for recent games has been the right one – Chelsea need a legitimate right-sided midfielder and Anelka is not it, but remains a genuine threat through the middle. The choice of either the Frenchman or Drogba is one Ferguson would love to have – especially since Dimitar Berbatov cannot do anything right at the minute, something the Wembley groundsmen can likely empathise with. The Bulgarian’s class is never in doubt but United require an all-action centre-forward, not the slow, stylish intricacies the ex-Spurs man brings. United have to be primed to pounce should Chelsea slip up, but time is running out. Getting Wayne Rooney fit and firing is of paramount importance to the Red Devils – indeed, the title may rest on it.