Right, where are we heading? No, not where were we heading to this morning as we set off from sunny Brummagem, that’s the easy question. We’re heading off to the south coast, beautifully scenic Hampshire, and to the United Kingdom’s only island city, Portsmouth, a.k.a. Pompey, and Fratton Park in particular, home of F.A. Cup finalists Portsmouth Football Club. No, I meant, where are we heading as a club? We seem to be heading for a major crossroads, and with stories and rumours circulating almost daily, you have to wonder exactly which shape and direction this great football club of ours will be taking come seasons end and throughout the summer months. Anyway, that was a topic that was no doubt to be heatedly debated, along of course with a variety of other topics, as we headed south to the home of Lord Admiral Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory.
We were not four this morning as we left Birmingham, the four having become five. Brother-in-law Mike is over from Cincinnati, Ohio, in the good old U.S. of A., sporting, as we all well knew he would, his steel blue ‘America’s No.1 Villan’ sweatshirt, up to the task of making the long journey south, having arrived in the U.K. on Friday morning, after a much delayed, and twice re-routed flight. Mike’s over for two weeks, with his wife and my sis-in-law Jenny, and plans to travel with us to Hull in the week, and will also be at the Brummagem derby next Sunday, when our dear friends and neighbours from Birmingham B9, pay us a very welcome visit. We were delighted to have him with us. A fresh face every now and again never hurts. MON, please take note.
A fourth place finish may well have eluded us for another season, but that clearly hadn’t dampened the enthusiasm, or minimised the support of the traveling Villans. While there’s a sixth, seventh, eighth, or even dare I suggest fifth place finish to contest, then it clearly looks as if the Villa faithful will still be following the lads in numbers until the final curtain falls down to signal the end of the campaign. Its hard to believe that after today we only have two more away games to come. It barely seems a few short weeks ago that we rolling into Liverpool to hand out a three-one spanking to Rafa’s Reds. Time certainly flies when you’re having fun.
The sun was beating down Costa Blanca style as we approached the outskirts of Portsmouth, and it is fair to say that we were in something of two minds as to whether to head for the nearest beach to participate in some springtime skinny-dipping, or stick to the original plan of a late afternoon at the football.
Unsurprisingly Martin had named an unchanged starting line-up from the team that began against Everton this past midweek, while on the bench, Fabian Delph surprisingly missed out, although rumours were circulating that he’d seemingly been injured in training on Friday, suffering a nasty knee injury. No doubt that rumour will be confirmed or denied before too long, in fact you guys back at home may have heard something long before we return home, and this report gets posted.
Our line-up:- Brad Friedel, Carlos Cuellar, Richard Dunne, James Collins, Stephen Warnock, Stewart Downing, James Milner, Stan Petrov, Ashley Young, John Carew and Gabby Agbonlahor.
On the bench:- Brad Guzan, Habib Beye, Nigel Reo-Coker, Cieran Clark, Steve Sidwell, Emile Heskey, and Nathan Delfouneso.
Not a full house as the game got underway, but a decent atmosphere all the same, which of course is always the order of the day at Fratton Park. Plenty of banter between the supporters, with the home contingent not slow to remind us that they were heading back to Wembley Stadium in May, whereas we weren’t.
Whereas we had made a bright start, earning a first minute corner that sadly came to nothing, it was Brad Friedel who had to make the first save of the game, with five minutes on the clock. A fine ball over from the right hand side picked out Boateng, who was positioned behind Cuellar at the back post. The Pompey playmaker could only just get his head to the ball initially, but it fell invitingly at his feet, and unchallenged he managed to get an attempt in on goal. Fortunately Brad was able to get down and make the save. A worrying lapse in our defence though, a lapse that we all agreed needed to be taken heed of.
Five minutes later though and we were behind, with unlikely goal scorer Brown putting the hosts ahead. Kanu played a neat throughball down the right channel for youngster Vanden Borre to run onto. Stephen Warnock was turned as Vanden Borre cut the ball back back from the goal line. The ball looked to be falling invitingly for Boateng, but he stepped over the lay-back, leaving Brown to sidefoot it past Brad from the edge of the box.
1-0 to the hosts, game on.
Stewart Downing put in a twenty yard effort in attempt to restore parity, but ex-Villan James got down well to save at the foot of the post, and then shortly after, Big JC looked certain to level when Gabby raced down the left, cut the ball back to the inrushing Norwegian, who with the goal at his mercy, managed to fire his effort straight at James, when it looked so much easier to score.
Fortunately the miss didn’t prove too costly, as within a minute Big John made amends by beating the offside trap to latch onto a long upfield punt from Stephen Warnock. He collected the ball, stepped inside a Pompey defender, steadied himself, and gave James no chance with a fierce effort to the goalkeeper’s right. 1-1, and time to breathe a huge collective sigh of relief, that we had been able to get back on level terms so quickly.
We came close to taking the lead on twenty minutes, Ashley Young’s cross from the right taking a deflection off a Pompey defender, wrong-footing David James, but clipping the near post.
Boateng whipped in an effort across goal that ensured Brad was keeping on his toes, and while it was an end to end affair, it has to be said that genuine quality was lacking from both teams play.
We were denied what looked like a very clear shout for a penalty when Gabby was upended in the area by Vanden Borre, but referee Probert decided that our man was the guilty party, awarding a free kick against our man. It clearly looked though as if the home defender had grabbed Gabby’s arm before pulling him down, but in truth Probert was a lot closer to the action than we were, so until I’ve seen replays of the incident, I’ll just have to give him the benefit of the doubt.
A couple of minutes later though we did get awarded a penalty, when Diop, having allowed Big JC to take the ball from him, clearly upended the big man just inside the box, and this time Probert had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Up stepped Big John, but his power effort was too close to David James, and the scores remained tied at 1-1. Another great chance thrown away.
At half time we were a pretty frustrated lot, and concerns were being voiced that unless we stepped up a gear, and started putting away these chances, then another draw at best, looked on the cards. Pompey lacked quality, yet they were certainly giving it their all, and that alone made them a threat while the score remained tied at one each.
We started the second half with plenty of intent, without really suggesting that we had enough in our locker to deliver the knock-out blow. Crosses were coming in, but all too often were either high or wide, and certainly none too handsome.
James Milner went close on fifty-five minutes, with a smart effort from the edge of the D, but once again David James was equal to it, and then a minute later, Ash put in a teasing cross that Gabby could only glance tamely at James, when with a bit more power and direction, we would surely have been 2-1 ahead.
Milly sent in another effort from the edge of the box, but James was yet again able to make the save.. He actually parried the ball straight into the path of Gabby 12 yards out, who sent his follow-up effort wide of the post, and was then relieved to see the offside flag up, to spare his blushes.
After seventy minutes, Mart decided it was time to make a change, bringing on Emile Heskey in place of John Carew, although most of us were by now starting to seriously wonder where a second, and possibly the winning goal, was going to come from.
We had huge shouts for a penalty waved away on the eighty minute mark when David James appeared to take down Stan Petrov, but again referee Probert was having none of it. Admittedly it looked as if Stan was playing for the penalty, but James definitely made contact, so surely the only award that can be given in that instance is a spot-kick?
Immediately after the incident Martin decided to send on Nathan Delfouneso for Gabby, and within a couple of minutes the youngster had latched onto Emile Heskey’s flick to poke the ball home from about five yards out.
Ashley Young had played a quick free-kick to Milly out on the left, and his cross was flicked on by Emile Heskey at the near post, before his fellow substitute joyously sent the ball past James. 2-1, and a second goal that I think we all had given up hope of ever coming.
We saw out the remainder of the game without too much trouble, although Pompey did have a half-chance in injury time, when Brad stuck out a hand to deny a goal bound effort from the home team, but in reality it didn’t overly trouble our veteran keeper.
So there we have it, three points, another away win, although in honesty, not a particularly impressive or comfortable performance. The same failings were once again evident for all to see, and a better team than Pompey would have made us pay for our lack of a killer touch in front of goal.
The defence, which over the course of the campaign has been our main strong-point, once again looked a little shaky at times, but fortunately on this occasion, Portsmouth were not set-up, nor were good enough, to take advantage of our hesitancy at the back.
All eyes now turn towards Wednesday evening and our trip to Hull City. With so much to play for, in the shape of their premiership future, you have to feel that The Tigers will test us more than did Avram Grant’s Portsmouth.
Right, here we go with the results from the ‘Glensider Jury’ marks out of ten awards. Five of us voting, the total of points awarded for each player then divided by five.
Brad Friedel – 6
Carlos Cuellar – 6
Richard Dunne – 6
James Collins – 5
Stephen Warnock – 5
Stewart Downing – 6
James Milner – 7
Stan Petrov – 5
Ashley Young – 7
John Carew – 6
Gabby Agbonlahor – 6
Emile Heskey – 6
Nathan Delfouneso – 6