Own-goal treble eases United to top spot
Man United 5
You had to hand it to the shirtless Portsmouth fans who kept beating their drums well past the final whistle, as if relishing the black comedy of the situation. A week that saw their troubled club notch up their fourth owner of the season ended with another unwanted statistic, as they buried a hat-trick of own goals past David James.
The PA system played REM's 'Everybody Hurts' as the crowd filed out, which was a nice touch, but hardly began to convey the true awfulness of Portsmouth's plight. The club is facing the threat of dissolution if the latest owner, Balram Chainrai, cannot balance the books. And with both Hull and Burnley winning yesterday, their chances of escaping relegation have become even more remote.
If one image summed up their performance yesterday, it was that of James lying stranded across the six-yard box as the ball spun gently into the net.
The goalkeeper attracted the worst sort of fortune. Some of it was his own doing -- notably the first goal, a three-yard header from Wayne Rooney on 40 minutes, which would never have happened if he had come to claim the cross.
But from then on, things began to get really cruel.
That agonising second came from an attempted cross by Nani, which deflected off right-back Anthony Vanden Borre and rolled with terrible slow-motion inevitability into the gap between James and his near post. It was the sort of howler that will hardly help his hopes of reclaiming the England No 1 jersey.
As if that moment was not embarrassing enough, there were still two more spectacular own-goals to come. Just before the hour mark, an ambitious shot from Michael Carrick looped up off Richard Hughes' boot, over James' flailing hand and in off the underside of the bar. Then, just to put the tin hat on things, Marc Wilson launched a volley into the top corner of his own net.
"Sometimes when things are not going well even the fates are against you," said Portsmouth manager Avram Grant. "But I don't want to think like this, as we have to do our job."
The manner of the goals might suggest that the players have spent the whole week running over black cats and dropping mirrors, but then they could just as easily have conceded five in a more conventional manner. It is frightening to think how many United might have scored unaided, if only their finishing had been more clinical.
United clearly deserve their place at the top of the Premier League, having produced a display of such fluent interplay that they often looked to be up against 11 bollards. At the heart of everything was Rooney, dropping off to lay passes into the path of the impish Nani and then popping up again in front of goal.
Working alongside Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov had a typically quixotic day. When he missed one absolute sitter from the edge of the six-yard box just after the half-hour mark, the usual murmurs started about his poor chances-to-goals ratio.
But he quietened them in the second half with a pantherish turn-and-strike from 30 yards, later described by Alex Ferguson as "a magnificent goal, absolutely brilliant".
Grant faced the press afterwards, and claimed unconvincingly that Portsmouth should have been 1-0 ahead (an argument based on a Nadir Belhadj effort that Jonny Evans cleared off the line). But he also expressed hope that Chainrai could be their saviour.
"We feel that we have some stones on our head that are not connected with football," Grant said.. "It was an almost impossible job, with all the mess around the club, the uncertainty, we didn't know where we were going. Now I hope that we will be more stable."
If they can stop beating themselves, that is.