Monday, December 15, 2008

Harbour masters

Portsmouth 0 - 3 Newcastle Utd

Well, they do say the sea air has marvellous restorative powers. After the vicious psychological wound inflicted by last week's tragically inevitable last-minute capitulation to Stoke, yesterday's game at Fratton Park was balm of the most soothing kind, for the second half at least.

Our prospects of avoiding defeat, if not actually winning the game, looked much brighter when it was clear both Nicky Butt and Danny Guthrie were fit to start, banishing memories of the central-defender-heavy side that finished the previous game.

But while it was important that the pair eventually exerted a dominance over their opposite numbers, Richard Hughes and Sean Davis, then it was even more so that for the third away day in a row our defence achieved a shut-out (reminded at one point of that target by Shay Given making a '0' with his fingers). Even Jose Enrique had a good game, by which I mean his only contributions of note weren't misplaced passes or sliced clearances (though there were still several of them).

We couldn't have achieved it on our own, though. In the first half referee Chris Foy turned down penalty appeals for handball against Butt and wrestling against Sebastien Bassong (the latter a far more creditable claim than the former), while Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe - who I'm still happy to tip as winding up the league's highest scoring double act at the end of the season (even if they look more like the sort of double act that should be on a stage than on a football pitch) - tried their luck on countless occasions, but only very rarely caused alarm for Given. Hughes thought he could beat the Irishman from 30 yards not once but twice (he couldn't), and the closest we came to conceding in that opening period was a deflected Niko Kranjcar shot that Given did well to parry for a corner.

Despite our hosts shading the possession, we looked the more threatening side. Obafemi Martins was desperately unlucky to see a rocket of a 30 yarder crash against the post, Enrique's rising drive was clawed away from the top corner by David James, and Habib Beye should have done much better with his header from a set-piece delivery which was really quite decent, for a change.

What was perhaps most pleasing, though, was that, having got to half-time at 0-0, we decided not to stick - or at least try to, as that tactic inevitably fails. No, we set out to build on the platform we'd established and twisted, and six minutes into the second period it played handsome dividends. Arnold Mvuemba's misplaced pass left Little Saint Mick space to run onto Spiderman's perceptive through-ball, and he recovered from a heavy first touch to lift the ball over James with the deftest of chips. Pompey really don't like saints, do they?

We started to sit a bit deeper, but the expected response never really materialised - one flashing shot from Defoe aside - and we continued to look menacing on the break. Key to our tactics was Martins's pace, and it was he who made the result safe with twelve minutes remaining. The Pompey fans were still howling with derision at a shot the ever-mercurial Nigerian sliced for a throw-in when Enrique supplied him on the edge of the six yard area and he calmly waited for James to go to ground before placing his shot.

There was the hint of a fly in the ointment when he left the pitch nursing what looked like a slight strain, but even that was sugared over by his replacement Shola Ameobi setting Guthrie up to sweep in a shot that James couldn't repel.

A thoroughly satisfying afternoon, then, and one that propelled us up to 14th (above the Mackems) and into the festive programme with renewed confidence. Three wins from three aren't beyond our capabilities - neither are three defeats, of course, but if we can replicate our mean-spiritedness at home and stop conceding stupid late goals then it may yet be a happy Christmas.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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