In what will go down as one of the most uninspiring and pointless games in Premier League history, Pompey lost yet another player for Sunday’s Wembley showdown.
This time through rank stupidity rather than sheer bad luck, but the result of Anthony Vanden Borre’s second half dismissal has the same end result – no place at Wembley. Whether he would have started or not is a different matter, he would certainly have made the squad, and he only limits Avram Grant’s options even further. Grant will now be counting the cost of another redundant Premier League encounter. Saturday’s game was merely a formality for both sides, whose distinctly differing fates had already been decided. Indeed Pompey’s starting XI promised the ultimately lame match as Grant not only wrapped star striker Frederic Piquionne in cotton wool ahead of Sunday’s game, but also picked a side devoid of any genuine shape or system – largely due to the endless list of injuries.
Jamie Ashdown deputised for David James, who was left out as a precaution due a niggling calf injury, and the former Reading man did himself plenty of favours. Without being brilliant, Ashdown acquitted himself well against the bombardment of long balls behind a relatively patchy defence. Indeed Ashdown’s clean sheet was Pompey’s first in 15 games, although Blackburn’s lack of quality in front of goal also deserves thanks for ending such a woeful defensive record. Another key component to the clean sheet – and the main shining light on the day – was that of Aaron Mokoena. The South African has been on the periphery of the squad in recent months following numerous abysmal displays at the start of the season, but Saturday saw a totally different player come the fore.
Mokoena sees himself as a midfield anchor man, in the side to tackle and break up the opposition attacks. However, games seemed to pass him by and his positional sense was almost non-existence, which coupled with a shocking array of passes, promptly lead to Pompey fans getting on his back. But Saturday, Mokoena was used as a makeshift centre-back – a position he has played numerous times at former clubs but used sparingly there during his time at Fratton Park. After seeing his showing at the weekend, few would argue that the former Blackburn man should stick to the defensive berth as he proved what a capable centre-back he is. Indeed after Hermann Hreidarsson was so cruelly struck down last week, Mokoena stepped up to deliver a similar lion-hearted and committed display the Icelander would have been proud of. Whether Mokoena has done enough to claim a starting spot at Wembley remains to be seen, but he has put himself firmly in the frame and gives Grant a decent option if Marc Wilson does not recover in time.
That is the week that Grant has to contend with before Sunday’s game. The fact that his final decision rests on numerous players who are still touch and go to make the game only disrupts his preparations further. Noises are that the likes of Wilson, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Nadir Belhadj and Papa Bouba Diop will all return to training at varying times this week but quite who will be available won’t be known right up until the last minute. The most costly miss remains Jamie O’Hara, who is ineligible to face his parent club. The on-loan midfielder is pivotal to Pompey’s attacking play as he has been the only midfielder capable of getting forward and hurting the opposition, as well as the only midfielder who can control the midfield with his excellent passing range. With the other options Richard Hughes, Michael Brown and Mokoena, the worrying lack of drive and quality is there for all to see. Angelos Basinas can offer a wide array of passing but his immobility makes him something of a luxury – something Pompey can ill-afford against a strong Tottenham side. It all means a timely return of the enigmatic Boateng would be a huge boost to Grant as his quality in the central areas would go a long way to making up for O’Hara’s absence.
Despite Boateng being far from a fans’ favourite right now, he could well be the key to Pompey’s cup dream. The fact that he is one of very few capable of unlocking defences means any former misdemeanours would go forgotten. All thoughts are on Wembley and petty squabbles won’t change that. The countdown has begun, the next four or five days remain pivotal to Pompey’s chances this weekend, as Grant and everyone associated with club cross their fingers in hope that their injured stars step out on to the hallowed Wembley turf at four o’clock on Sunday.