By Matt Rowson
What a difference a weekend makes.
On Friday, all the portents for Tuesday were positive. Portsmouth in apparent disarray following the contentious departures of Harry Redknapp and Jim Smith last week, and with one fit, senior striker. Watford were on a run of a million games unbeaten and on the back of a thunderous performance at Elland Road.
Now, at 3pm on Sunday afternoon, it all looks a little different. Portsmouth yesterday secured their first away win in the League this season at Bolton, a result that will massively bolster their confidence. Watford were ultimately overrun and beaten at Upton Park (again), losing Boris Gunnarsson to injury.
The departure of Redknapp has generally been reported with a mystified air, casual analysis not progressing beyond the fact that he had presided over the most lauded period in Pompey's history. Such assessment skates over the consideration that Mandaric, a successful businessman, would not engineer the departure of a personal friend on a whim... a report in The Independent makes an intelligent and (according to Pompey messageboards) more balanced judgment. Nor should the same manager's similarly peculiar departure from West Ham United in 2001 be overlooked... not-so-whispered rumours concerning several million pounds' worth of agents' fees perhaps provide a clue.
Blockades were quickly erected at Fratton Park last week; with the mysterious Velimir Zajec nominally taking charge of team affairs but Kevin Bond and Joe Jordan taking training sessions that were conducted in private. The press blackout didn't extend to the media awaiting players on their way out of training; Sky's interviews created the impression that the popular Redknapp's surprise farewell hadn't gone down terribly well, and that the players are no better informed about proceedings than anyone else. Their were rumours of a player revolt following the upheaval, and away win at Bolton or no, a general sense of disquiet won't be too far beneath the surface.
The Portsmouth website has launched a Pravdaesque party-line campaign with Press Officer Johnny Moore nailing his colours firmly to Mandaric's mast. Interesting that Moore's photo in the linked article dwarfs that of Mandaric - I always thought that Press Officers were such unassuming folk...
Emotional statements from Mandaric in Dubai must reawaken memories of his claims on recruiting Redknapp that he would have packed the whole thing in if his friend had not accepted his offer to get involved at Portsmouth three years ago. Confirmed reports of Mandaric making approaches to purchase a club in Greece will add fuel to these flames... there's plenty of mileage in this one one suspects.
On the pitch, the quality of Portsmouth's result yesterday shouldn't conceal the fact that they rode their luck at the Reebok Stadium, surviving two strong penalty appeals and mounting a rearguard action in the 4-5-1 formation that their injuries virtually dictate. What happens if they actually go behind in these circumstances is anyone's guess... but at any rate one assumes that the army of supporters that will follow them to Vicarage Road on Tuesday evening will be rather less tolerant of packing the defence and attacking on the break against a Division Two side.
It may not be long since Pompey were Division Two fodder themselves, playing the likes of us every week ("a regular diet of gruel and dry bread" - Johnny Moore), but that hasn't prevented a degree of arrogance in messageboard assessments of the game, with discussion focusing largely on how many players Portsmouth can afford to rest. Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't we muller Portsmouth's south coast rivals just four days before they beat Pompey in a League tie? Anyhow...
A question mark hangs over the goalkeeping position; Jamie Ashdown, signed from Reading on a Bosman over the summer, has impressed during the last couple of games whilst Shaka Hislop has been out with a training injury. As an aside, if anyone still has the programme from our 1992 League Cup tie against Reading, they'll be able to read that at this stage "Shaka" was still going by his real name, Neil. Ha. Harold Wapenaar will be on the bench if Neil fails to make it.
Assuming that Pompey do field their strongest side, there's still some conjecture as to which four of five at the back that would comprise. Linvoy Primus, regularly deployed as a right back by Redknapp despite being more comfortable in the centre, is thought to be the likeliest to miss out, which would leave Andy Griffin, a summer signing from Newcastle, at right back and David Unsworth, who missed Saturday's win through suspension, on the left. This would see the rugged Arjan De Zeeuw and elegant Dejan Stefanovic, both left footers, team up in the centre. Lewis Buxton, who always looked a bit out of his depth in Division Two, made it to the bench during earlier rounds but is unlikely to feature here unless injuries weigh in; Australian Hayden Foxe hasn't featured for almost twelve months since breaking his foot.
In the midfield, Nigel Quashie and Gary O'Neil are likely to take the deeper central roles; both are decent players, but neither exactly an unknown quantity with Quashie having spent an eternity in this division prior to promotion and O'Neil having enjoyed a number of loan spells, most recently at Cardiff, having not impressed Harry Redknapp sufficiently despite captaining England's Under 21s. Steve Stone should play on the right, with Matthew Taylor, another not favoured by Redknapp, on the left with Patrik Berger in the free role. An alternative configuration would see Berger on the left with the talentedwhenhefeelslikeit Eyal Berkovic behind the striker. Richard Hughes, Valery Mezague, Aliou Cisse and Amdy Faye, dismissed as a "bone idle, big time charlie" in one assessment, are alternatives for the central roles, whilst Kevin Harper, once linked with the Hornets, could get a place on the bench as a wide option.
Up front, Portsmouth have an horrific catalogue of injuries which in any other circumstances you'd have to sympathise with. Yakubu and Diomansy Kamara are both out with medial ligament problems, Svetoslav Todorov has barely played since Pompey won promotion and isn't expected back until next summer, Vincent Pericard has damaged his cruciate ligaments and is also out long term and Lomano Lua Lua is doubtful with a hip injury that kept him out at the weekend.
This leaves Ricardo Fuller, not a bad option as a lone striker but, by my recollection, never particularly keen to employ his evident physical strength and again, hardly an unknown quantity. It's curious that the very profound depths of Portsmouth's striking problems are still insufficient to warrant Mark Burchill, once Scotland's next big thing, returning to consideration. Burchill has made ten starts for Pompey since signing from Celtic three years ago; he is somehow still only twenty-four.
Having said all of which, and to quote words uttered by a very wise man at the end of last week, "It doesn't matter who they play". We've shown our quality this season against both Premiership (not Premier, not a ship) opposition and the best sides in this division and are more than capable of beating a Portsmouth side in this kind of state. Pompey may have won on Saturday, our unbeaten run may have gone, but our visitors are still in a precarious position; losing to us would reawaken the bitching and arguing that dominated before Saturday's surprise victory. We have nothing whatsoever to lose.