Sunday, April 15, 2007

One man band out of Toon

Portsmouth 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Despite the best efforts of Obafemi Martins, yesterday saw us slump to yet another away defeat down on the English Riviera. Such were the performances of the some of Martins' colleagues, particularly in a dreadful first half, that one might have been forgiven for wondering if they'd been plucked from their retirement deckchairs along the coast at Bournemouth and pitched into the action. Certainly, a bunch of pensioners could hardly have been more clueless...

Before the match not only were we speculating as to which Newcastle would turn up, but also as to which Portsmouth we'd be facing - the tight-knit and determined team who deservedly defeated league leaders Man Utd (to put it in context, the Red Devils' next opponents Roma were thrashed 7-1 three days later), or the hapless rabble who crashed to ignominious defeat at basement club Watford just two days later. Unfortunately for us, with Pompey back on home soil, it was the former.

With Steve Harper, Charles N'Zogbia and Craig Moore replacing Oguchi Onyewu and injured duo Shay Given and Kieron Dyer, we started brightly enough, Martins stinging David James' fingers with a rising drive. But that initial hope soon dissipated. Only six minutes had elapsed when last Saturday's hero Steven Taylor took pity on our opponents' much maligned record signing Benjani Mwaruwari, the sort of striker who is hard-working but possesses a worse goalscoring record than Paul Robinson. Having allowed himself to be mugged in the area, Taylor presented Benjani with a scoring opportunity which he duly took.

From that point on we were swamped by the blue tide. Our supposedly talented midfield quartet were overrun, and our defence torn apart by Benjani and Kanu, who was unlucky to see a shot hit the bar, bounce down onto the line and spin out back into play. The Nigerian missed the target when well placed to score on another occasion, and Harper made an excellent stop to deny Benjani a second. Moore was withdrawn on the half hour because, Glenn Roeder commented later, "he was struggling and we thought it was right to make the change". Why he decided to rush the Australian back from injury when Onyewu had a perfectly sound game against Arsenal is quite beyond me.

Right at the end of the half we at last showed the guts to stick our heads out of the bunker and fire a shot in reply, Martins unfortunate to see his header cleared off the line by Lauren, but by that point we could and should have been several goals down.

Roeder rightly rattled a few eardrums during the break, and at the start of the second period hauled off the anonymous N'Zogbia, beanpole striker Andy Carroll his replacement. Invigorated by the arrival of a proper strike partner Martins, no doubt whistling 'With A Little Help From My Friends', matched his Nigerian compatriot Kanu by heading against the bar from James Milner's cross. Just as he did last week against Sheffield Utd, he was tormenting the opposing defence - but this time he was being left to perform miracles single-handedly.

Soon after that chance Pompey doubled their advantage, Matt Taylor smashing a shot in from 30 yards. We could have few complaints about the scoreline, such was their dominance in the first half. But, as if a switch had been flicked, that second goal brought our players to life and we suddenly - unexpectedly - started to exert ourselves. Even then, though, we needed Dejan Stefanovic's assistance in getting a foothold back into the game, Milner tricking the big defender into scything him down. Emre converted the resultant penalty, thereby prolonging James' wait to claim the record for Premiership clean sheets.

It wasn't the last action he saw, either. With his side very much on the back foot, only an excellent save prevented Martins from finally registering the goal his display merited and stealing us an improbable point. Despite some sustained late pressure, it wasn't to be.

Our 11th away defeat of the season combined with Villa's win on Smogside saw us drop to 11th in the table - the psychological blow of slipping out of the top half of the table. The European dream is all but dead in the water, though Roeder is still talking about the possibility of maximum points from our last four games - laughable, really. Lest we forget, our next opponents are a Chelsea side desperate not to allow Man Utd to wrest the Premiership trophy from their grasp without a fight, while we've failed to score in each of our last three home games. It could be bloody.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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