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Thursday, 14 August 2008

Can Pompey eclipse FA Cup triumph?

March 11, 2006, is the date that signalled the transformation of Portsmouth Football Club. Pedro Mendes’s sensational last-gasp strike against Manchester City gave Pompey their first win of the calendar year and was the springboard to go on an unbelievable run of form to leave the drop zone behind. Since that sunny spring day, Harry Redknapp and Portsmouth have gone from strength to strength. He worked his magic in the transfer market the following season, bringing in established internationals like David James and Sol Campbell to the club, and finished a credible ninth.

However, all of Harry’s hard work really paid off last season as the Fratton Park outfit finished eighth and brought the FA Cup back to the club for only the second time in their history. And if they didn’t take their eye off the ball as they prepared for the cup final it could have been even higher. Now as the fans prepare for the start of the 2008/09 season the big question is; Can Harry Redknapp continue to improve Portsmouth? You’d be a fool to think otherwise.

There was a time when Redknapp would sign players who had seen better days and give them a fresh lease of life for a season or two. However, those days seem to be long gone. Up front for Portsmouth this season will be two strikers who are very much in Fabio Capello’s plans for the national team. Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe complement each other’s style of play and should prove to be one of the Premiership’s most lethal partnerships. Redknapp has also snapped up Younes Kaboul, from Spurs, Glen Little, from Reading, and signed Ben Sahar on loan from Chelsea.

Chief executive Peter Storrie has blamed the credit crunch for the lack of big money moves at the club but Harry Redknapp’s transfer policy is definitely looking towards the future.

However, the only thing that could affect Portsmouth’s league aspirations this season is their exploits in the UEFA Cup. With all the extra games and travelling, injuries and suspensions could hit the club severely. We’ve seen it before with Ipswich, who were relegated after qualifying for the UEFA Cup, and Everton, who suffered a nightmare start after reaching the Champions League.

Peter Rendle, from the Australian supporters group Pompey Down Under, admits to feeling slightly apprehensive ahead of the new season and believes that European football will undoubtedly hamper their league form.

“The UEFA cup will definitely put a strain on current resources and will affect league performances this season. Look at Bolton, they really struggled when they went into Europe. Harry is aware but I’m concerned that there is not as much money around as they have suggested.  At the moment it looks as if the money we got for Muntari financed the purchase of Crouch and that is not the greatest of deals from my perspective.”

Fellow Pompey fan Daniel Taylor, from the Portsmouth Supporters Club London, never thought he’d see the day that Portsmouth would be rubbing shoulders with some of Europe’s elite and is concerned whether the squad is strong enough to cope on four fronts.

“We have some very good quality players, and a good mix of young and old, which will hopefully combine to deliver a winning blend of energy and experience. Whether we have the squad to cope with the demands of the inevitable fixture congestion, which would result from a good run, I wouldn’t like to say before the transfer window closes. I don’t think we have enough strength and depth as it stands.”

Another concern for Portsmouth is their tough start to the season. They kick off against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday followed by the champions and Champions League winners Manchester United at home and Everton away. Stamford Bridge has never been a happy hunting ground for Portsmouth, Manchester United, even without Ronaldo, will be a tough game, and Everton are sure to be their usual tenacious selves. It could have been a lot easier for the FA Cup holders but Dan believes there are still points up for grabs.

“I think it’s important to get off to a good start, as even early on you can be left playing catch up. Manchester United will be an interesting opener at home as it will be the third time we’ve played them in two months; I think we have a good chance. Chelsea’s new boss Scolari will be out to impress and make a positive first impression on the Premier League, so you can’t see him accepting less than 100 per cent from his players and we have a poor record at Stamford Bridge. As for Everton they can be unpredictable. I would hope and believe we could get four points from the nine available.”

And Peter claims that it’s better to get the tough games out of the way as soon as possible.

The start is a tough one, but better we play them with a team relatively clear of injuries than later in the season with injuries and the effects of extra games. If we grab a few points off them then so much the better.”

With Portsmouth adding proven firepower to their solid defensive unit a few pundits have claimed that Pompey could be the ones to really challenge the top four this season. However, Dan has warned fans not to get too carried away.

“I think it’s wrong to suggest we’ll break the top four. Realistically Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool are all going to be ahead of us – I’d bet my landlord’s house on it. What we have to hope for is that we’ll be competing against the likes of Everton, Villa and Spurs for 4th, 5th or 6th place.

“I’d like to think we could kick on from last season. The signing of Crouch, and links with the likes of Wright-Phillips, have shown that we have the desire to achieve a higher league position and improve the team. I’m not deluded enough to think that we’ll break into the top four without spending serious amounts of cash (as Tottenham seem to be doing) but I see no reason why we can’t finish in the top eight and secure a European spot.”

And Peter Rendle agrees that the top four is simply a dream at the moment.

“I’m not sure about top four, in fact unless there is some more quality signings I say ‘forget it’.  The top four are able to field top class bench players, those that sit around but still get paid fat wages. That’s the secret.  You get injuries your second string is above average. To crack the system you need lots of money.

“If we are top 10 this season then we will have done well. If we qualify for the final stages of the UEFA Cup it will be a bonus.  If we are 11th or 12th then that will be because of the strain of Europe. If we are lower than 12th then I’ll be disappointed.”

However, Frank Bulbeck, from rural Ohio, a member of the USA Portsmouth Supporters Club, who thinks Manchester United will retain the title this season, is expecting big things from his new forward partnership.

“Even though Crouch played for Southampton, I am glad to see him back. I always thought he would play for England and I think the price was right. I like the 'little & large' combination. This will take you back: two of the best combinations of this type were Toshack & Keegan for Liverpool and Dougan & Richards for Wolves. I am expecting the same from Crouch & Defoe. Wow! The England strike force plays for Portsmouth - I still can't believe it! I never thought I would live to see this day.”

Fratton Park used to be a fortress but although Portsmouth only lost four times at home last season they drew eight of them, which is far too much for a team with their ambition. Fortunately their away form picked up significantly from the season before. However, if Portsmouth want to make it in to the top six then they are going to have get back to winning ways at home. Harry Redknapp will be hoping that his new signings can help him achieve that goal, but Dan would like to see Redknapp bring in a few more new faces before the transfer window closes.

“Like many I think we need another option on the right hand side, a winger (be that Wright-Phillips or someone else) Utaka just doesn’t cut the mustard and I don’t recall much about Little, as he was missing due to injuries for much of last season. For that reason I think Little has been purchased to bolster the squad and take his chance if he gets one. He’s not the missing link. I also think we lack a bit of creativity in midfield at times, the likes of a Berkovic, Merson or Dellasandro, but that’s a luxury and not necessarily a ‘must have’.

“In addition to a winger we definitely need some back up options in defence. Sol, as magnificent as he has been, is showing signs of age and Lauren has failed to show much of the quality he displayed at Arsenal. Relying on a returning Linvoy would be a risk too far in my opinion. Herman had a fantastic season at left back and scored some much needed goals but a natural left back is important if we’re to fight on all fronts and have the option to vary things a little.”

The new season always manages to fill football fans with confidence. It doesn’t matter if your team won the league the season before or narrowly avoided the drop, they always manage to look on the bright side of life. Peter, whose favourite Pompey player of all time is Peter Harris, believes he has every right to think positively.

I am really looking forward to the new season. Defoe, Crouch, Diarra, Kranjcar, Distin, James and Johnson are all world class and Diop and Utaka are promising to step up too. It’s probably the best starting line-up we’ve ever had.  With the title ’2008 FA CUP winners’ to live up to it will be great season for Pompey fans.”

But Dan, who thinks Fulham will join Stoke City and Hull City in the Championship next season, is keeping his feet firmly on the ground.

“In a weird way I’m quite relaxed about the forthcoming season. It has the potential to be the best in memory (though I’d struggle to imagine how bettering the FA Cup win could be possible) but I don’t want to build it up through fear of disappointment. In my mind this season, more than any other, marks a significant change in the make up of the club and the relationship it has with its fans. With European football comes greater expectation, more TV appearances, altered kick off times, more high profile transfers and higher wages. The world of Premier League football has changed Pompey, the world of European football could transform it. As there are greater demands on my time and money I hope I’m able to stick around and watch the transformation.”   

Could the events of this season signal another momentous moment in Portsmouth’s history?

Calling all Portsmouth fans. How do you assess your chances of success this season? How many goals do you think Crouch and Defoe will score? Is victory in the UEFA Cup out of the question? What would you rather do; finish in the top six of the Premiership, retain your grasp on the FA Cup or feature in the UEFA Cup final?

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