Pompey came out 2-0 winners against Burnley in a game which was, in truth, dire from beginning to end.
After a lacklustre first half, which saw the home side booed off the pitch, Portsmouth took the lead through some great link-up play involving Kanu and Hermann Hreidarsson. The Icelandic stalwart then shot low past ‘keeper Brian Jensen to the relief of the home crowd.
Moments earlier, Portsmouth’s backup ‘keeper Asmir Begovic was forced in to two fine saves from the Burnley forward line, proving why he’s ahead of fellow goalkeeper Jamie Ashdown in the pecking order.
Portsmouth all but confirmed their victory in the last ten minutes when striker Aruna Dindane made up for an earlier first-half penalty miss by connecting with a pinpoint Jamie O’Hara cross.
It was Avram Grant’s first victory as Portsmouth manager, yet it was not convincing. It was only the intervention of Nwankwo Kanu which brought the game alive.
Pompey made a number of changes to the side which featured against Aston Villa midweek. Defender Younes Kaboul missed out to serve a suspension, while Steve Finnan and Marc Wilson returned to form a new backline. Midfielders Jamie O’Hara and Kevin Prince-Boateng returned after being cup-tied while there was a rare start for forward Tommy Smith.
Ivory Coast forward Aruna Dindane was allowed to start the game, despite reports suggesting Pompey could no longer afford to play him. RC Lens, his parent club, had entered a clause in the loan agreement stating Pompey had to purchase the striker after 12 appearances. This clause has now been extended to 25.
The game was highly built-up as a ‘must-win’ game. If Pompey were to win, for at least two hours they would move off the bottom of the table, due to having a better goal difference than Wolves.
The incentive was there. The passion was there. The team spirit was evident as captain Michael Brown rallied his teammates together for a team huddle, minutes before kick-off.
What followed however, was just mind-blowing, but not in a good way.
Burnley started the brighter of the two sides, taking advantage of some slack Portsmouth defending. However, the first real opportunity fell to Portsmouth’s Kevin Prince-Boateng.
Boateng was given a free role, allowing to him roam and roam is just what he did. He travelled with the ball from the centre-spot before unleashing a powerful shot from just outside the area, which Jensen could only collect at the second opportunity after spilling the ball.
Burnley winger Kevin McDonald then took advantage of a miss clearance from Hermann Hreidarsson, yet his shot could only find the side-netting. Forward Robbie Blake then found himself walking into the Pompey area, with only some last-ditch defending by Tal Ben Haim and Marc Wilson seeing Pompey survive.
Nerves were starting to appear, both on and off the pitch.
And then, completely against the run of play, Pompey received a soft penalty through Hreidarsson, who appeared more or less to slip when running for the ball. With a shrug of the shoulders, Hermann revealed he wasn’t looking for it.
Penalties seem to have played a constant fixture in Portsmouth’s season. For example, it was Boateng’s miss against Stoke that eventually saw Paul Hart sacked as manager. He made up for that miss by scoring against Manchester United the next week. He re-established himself as the club’s penalty-taker…or so fans thought.
Striker Aruna Dindane stood up to take the spot-kick and struck weakly into the direction of Jensen’s diving body and then headed straight into his arms upon the rebound. The chorus of boos which followed were deafening. It almost seemed all hope was now lost. It was a massive opportunity missed.
Pompey started the brighter of the two sides in the second-half, with Boateng’s drive narrowly missing wide of the post after some good hold-up play by Dindane.
Begovic then produced a stunning save to deny Kevin McDonald. His shot was heading towards the top corner if it weren’t for the fingertips of the Bosnian. Steven Fletcher then struck a teasing shot across Begovic’s goal-line. Fletcher saved the best to last however, producing a spectacular half-volley which left Begovic making even more acrobatics.
Pompey then took the lead through defender Hreidarsson, after great link-up play involving Dindane, Boateng and Kanu. It was the defender’s first goal of the season and the celebrations that followed just showed how much it meant to the players.
Was it a Mendes moment? We shall see.
Boateng went close to extending Pompey’s lead after a mazy run from Kanu, managing to hold off much of the Burnley defence. Unfortunately for Boateng and Portsmouth, his eventual shot was on the wrong side of the post.
It was an opportunity missed that Pompey hoped not to regret.
With minutes remaining, Dindane made up for his earlier sin by making and scoring Pompey’s second. After a dramatic dive, the forward was awarded a free-kick. O’Hara eventually crossed for Dindane to score a downward header, his fifth goal of the season.
Reading through this article you think Portsmouth played well. But they didn’t. The passing in the first half is some of the worse some fans had ever seen. Pompey looked unmotivated and lost.
Before Hreidarsson’s opener, many were actually calling for the return of Paul Hart, as at least then the club played attractive football.
The win has left more questions than answers. The result glosses over the actual performance. The side won ‘ugly’. Many fans would argue they would rather win ‘ugly’ than lose ‘attractively’.
However, there aren’t too many occasions this season where Pompey will be able to win ‘ugly’ and play as they did Saturday.
If it were any other side, Portsmouth would have been at least 3-0 down by half-time. It was only due to Burnley’s poor away record that the home side were able to capitalise.
The return of Steve Finnan was a bonus, particularly as he lasted a whole game without being injured. He’s sure to make the right-back spot his own for the next few games at least.
Watching Kanu was and always is a pleasure. Arguments have been made that he should start more regularly, and I would agree. He was the key factor in Saturday’s game. He provided leadership in areas Michael Brown did not.
One picture that emerges in my mind from Saturday’s game is the embrace between Kanu and Hreidarsson upon the defender getting his goal. They are two of four survivors of the 2008 cup-winning squad. Despite being left behind, their passion for the club has not deterred.
In my personal opinion, one of the two should be captain. Michael Brown, despite his mouthing-off, hasn’t got the connection with the club that I feel a captain needs.
The road ahead may be long, but we have to believe we can reach the end of it.