As Nathan Delfouneso’s late strike sealed Portsmouth’s 23rd defeat of their beleaguered Premier League season, few of the Fratton Park regulars would’ve felt that sickening feeling that usually comes following such a late sucker-punch. But priorities lay elsewhere, and the spirit and battling display the players showed was enough for those hardy supporters who showed up despite the nothingness the game represented.
Avram Grant’s offerings following the defeat represented the feeling amongst the ranks on the south coast. He was clearly proud of his side’s decent display and more importantly, relieved there were no new injuries to his ever-depleting squad. Key men such as Ricardo Rocha, Jamie O’Hara, Steve Finnan and Hayden Mullins all sat out with what are best described as ‘niggles’, while Tal Ben-Haim and Nadir Belhadj remain sidelined with no real news on any immediate comeback. On the plus side, Aruna Dindane’s future involvement has been secured as his parent club Lens have now reached a compromise with Pompey, which was essentially for the French club to wipe clean any payment due after the Ivorian’s 22nd appearance in Pompey Blue – he currently sits on 21. Reports suggested Lens were happy to let their striker play in the FA Cup final, but nothing before. To be fair it was a compromise of sorts, but Grant rightly wanted Dindane to be able to get some match fitness, and sharpness, under his belt in time for Wembley next month – which he can now do following the agreement.
With the Cup final under a month away, Pompey’s remaining three Premier League games will be about purely getting their star names through, unscathed, as well as getting their army of injured players back on to the pitch for as much playing time as possible. Sunday’s game with Aston Villa was just that. The result may have been the wrong one, but coming through unharmed, with a few promising performances to match meant it was a reasonable day from Grant’s point of view. The first half especially was energetic and full of attacking threat from the hosts, even if they were shaky at the back. Kevin-Prince Boateng reminded Pompey fans what they had been missing for the past two months as his quality and endeavour caused havoc in the opening 45 minutes. Unfortunately, the front pairing of John Utaka and Kanu was shorn of any movement or threat, meaning attacks largely broke down in and around the penalty area. In all honesty Kanu will never offer you any real movement but his hold up play and ability with the ball at his feet easily makes up for what he lacks in legs. However, Sunday was an off-day for the Nigerian – probably due to his lack of action this season – but Utaka remains the greater worry. The former Rennes man showed signs of his quality at the turn of the year but he appears to have tailed off into the lazy, disinterested player fans on the south coast have grown all too accustomed to.
The real shame about Utaka is he clearly possesses a huge amount of quality, but when the desire isn’t there it just goes to waste. He even got a full 90 minutes in his favoured central striker position, where he claims to be at his most threatening, as opposed to the right-wing slot he has fulfilled for much of his Pompey career, but his labouring around up top just gave his midfielders nothing to look for when obtaining possession. Too many times the likes of Michael Brown and Hassan Yebda looked forward, looking to relieve the growing Villa pressure – especially in the second half – only to be presented with no out-ball into the channels. If Utaka has any desire to play in the FA Cup final, he is not showing it. If Dindane or Boateng can’t fulfil their duties come May 15, Utaka would surely be the ideal replacement, flanking Frederic Piquionne from either right or left. But playing against Chelsea, Pompey can ill-afford anyone whose not going to pull their weight, especially up against Chelsea’s flying full-backs, of whom Utaka would be expected to track – something he has never possessed any will of doing since arriving in England. He remains that frustratingly enigmatic, potentially match-winning, but usually just plain bone-idol figure who seems happy watch his undoubted talent slowly drip dry.
With three games left before the Wembley showpiece Utaka still has the chance to show he’s worthy of a spot for the big game. However, he shows no signs of nailing it down, so perhaps the effort is best elsewhere instead of wasting yet more time on the lackadaisical Utaka. The one thing that has got Pompey into that FA Cup final is undying spirit and pure graft, something Utaka, has never, and will never possess sadly it seems.