Saturday 24 March 2018

Pompey conjure up magic of cup to pull off mission improbable

(After extra-time)

Sam Wallace

IT was one incredible afternoon in the spring sunshine at Wembley for Portsmouth yesterday that not even the official administrator of this poor blightedclub, or their most rapacious creditor, will be able to take away from them and sell-off.

This remarkable FA Cup semifinal will always belong to Portsmouth, no matter how far their dire debts and financial mismanagement drag them down in the years to come.The club that English football has long since pronounced dead reached the FA Cup final with Avram Grant’s rag-tag team of loan players, rejects and no-hopers.

This utterly improbable victory over Tottenham was, in the end, completely deserved. Portsmouth played like a team who had nothing to lose and sometimes in cup football that is enough. The administrators have sold off or sacked just about every asset in the club but, on yesterday’s evidence, the beating heart remains.

The FA Cup has been Portsmouth’s poison and now they hope it will remedy the pain that has accompanied their financial oblivion. Two years ago they won the competition having spent way beyond their means to do it and now, as they pay the price for those heady days, they find themselves skint, in administration, relegated from the Premier League and somehow in the FA Cup final once again.

It will surely be too much to ask that they will be able to beat Grant’s former club Chelsea on 15 May, although those thoughts can wait for another day. The only bonafide international star who remains from Portsmouth’s big-spending salad days is David James and yesterday no player was better than Pompey’s magnificent goalkeeper. The victory for West Ham over Sunderland on Saturday meant that Portsmouth – docked nine points for entering financial administration – were relegated but they have been living too long on death row for that to come as a shock. Like the proverbial condemned man they seemed like a team who had made peace with their fate.

Tottenham, on the other hand, were jittery and uncertain. For all their faults, Spurs conceded their first goal in the ninth minute of extra-time in part because of a dodgy Wembley pitch that Redknapp called a “disgrace”. When Kevin Prince Boateng headed down Michael Brown’s free-kick in extra-time the Spurs captain Michael Dawson slipped over and allowed Frederic Piquionne to score the first goal.

When Aruna Dindane was fouled for the penalty that Boateng scored for Portsmouth’s second goal, Spurs were already in desperate search of an equaliser. They only had themselves to blame. Despite having been given the chance to open up Pompey on many occasions, the quality of the final ball was lacking.Credit must go to Grant for getting his tactics right – it was an approach that broadly involved Portsmouth defending with ten men and relying upon the pace of Piquionne, Dindane and latterly John Utaka on the break. At the final whistle, Grant cut his usual idiosyncratic figure, ambling around the pitch not sure whether to celebrate with his players or take himself off down the tunnel. The final against Chelsea puts Grant up against his former sponsor Roman Abramovich who single-handedly launched his career in England by giving him the Chelsea manager’s job in 2007 when he was unknown outside Israel.

Grant is building his career in reverse – having been woefully under-qualified for the Chelsea job he is now demonstrating the qualities required to manage lower down the hierarchy. Portsmouth will not even be able to take up the Europa League place that should be theirs by right whether they win the FA Cup or not – Chelsea will have a Champions League place from their league finish – because they are in financial administration.

They had some rare good fortune yesterday, though. Peter Crouch had a perfectly good goal disallowed 12 minutes into extra-time because referee Alan Wiley judged that Niko Kranjcar had fouled James in the build-up. He had done no such thing. Spurs were not helped by the fact that the players they would ordinarily have relied on for some creativity were very far from their best. Gareth Bale was their best wide attacking threat.It was telling that Ricardo Rocha, one of three former Spurs players in a blue shirt, was voted the man of the match.

Alongside Aaron Mokoena in the centre of defence he stuck close enough to Crouch to unsettle the striker. When James improbably saved from Crouch’s flick in the 91st minute, even the Spurs striker had to smile in disbelief. The pace of Dindane and Piquionne was a concern for Spurs all afternoon and the former was fouled by Wilson Palacios for the late penalty which Boateng scored.

Boateng is another Spurs reject with a point to prove, and another whose career beyond May will lie away from Fratton Park. But for now, no one at Portsmouth need look beyond their glorious goodbye at Wembley on 15 May.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Gomes; Corluka, Dawson, Bassong, Bale; Bentley (Kranjcar, 79), Huddlestone (Gudjohnsen, 112), Palacios, Modric; Crouch, Defoe (Pavlyuchenko, 59). Substitutes not used: Rose, Alnwick (gk), Livermore, Assou-Ekotto.

Portsmouth (4-1-4-1): James; Finnan, Mokoena, Rocha, Mullins (Hughes, 119); Wilson; Dindane, Brown, Yebda (Utaka, 88), Boateng; Piquionne (Bouba Diop, 112). Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), Kanu, Basinas, Smith.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: Tottenham Huddlestone, Palacios, Bassong.

Man of the match: James.


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