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Our Man In The Stand – Mark Turner

Apropros this match report, I have decided to take an unbiased, professional position… It was the Wembley pitch wot dunnit! It was a disgrace, it should be Chelsea verses the turf in the final. Actually no, it was the ref! Why was Crouch’s goal disallowed? Alan Wiley is a plumb!

Sighs… Now that I have vented my slightly bitter tirade upon the universe, let us deal with the reality of yesterdays FA Cup semi-final between Portsmouth and Tottenham Hotspur.

Ahead of the contest, Portsmouth were given little chance. Pompey had been officially relegated the day before owing to Hull City’s 4-1 defeat by Burnley, and after a depressing season on the South-Coast, little was expected of Avram Grant’s team. Portsmouth had played Tottenham only two weeks previously, and although they created a few good chances, they were easily dispatched at White Hart Lane. In essence, Portsmouth turned up at Wembley with nothing left to lose, and consequently, played like a team bereft of fear.

Tottenham on the other hand approached this game with the weight of expectation. They were expected to beat Portsmouth, and beat them well. Spurs began the game by attacking the goal at Tottenham fans end, to which the chap I was sat next to at Wembley yesterday afternoon stated, ‘oh well, at least we’ll get to see a couple of goals down our end’. At the pub prior to the game, everyone laughed pityingly at me when I drew Portsmouth to win 2-0 in our sweepstake. Unfortunately, it’d be the Portsmouth fans that deservedly had the last laugh.

After considering the best way to approach a painful subject, I think there was a moment in the first half that best summed up the pattern of play. Five minutes before the interval, Tottenham had possession of the ball, and slowly built the play from the back. Another sideways pass found Gareth Bale, and the player, who was perhaps the only Tottenham player who turned up on the day, lost possession in the Portsmouth half. Hassan Yebda sprinted down the Tottenham left, and curled a pass into the path of Frederic Piquionne. The Portsmouth striker, who was left with only Heurelho Gomes to beat, struck his shot straight at the Brazilian.

It was the best chance of the first half, and for all Tottenham’s possession, a clearer opening than Spurs could muster all game. Although Tottenham went close on numerous occasions, Portsmouth seemed to have eleven men camped in front of goal, deflecting and blocking shot after shot. Although the pitch made it difficult, Tottenham were guilty of a lack of invention. Portsmouth were prepared to invite Spurs on, and in the end, the Lilywhites simply ran out of ideas. Huddlestone looked half fit, getting caught in possession intermittently and often spraying ineffective passes sideways rather than forward. Modric was quiet, and there appeared a lack of cohesion between the small Croatian and the forward pairing of Crouch and Defoe. Tottenham couldn’t get behind Portsmouth in wide areas, whilst they lacked an incisive pass to play through them. For much of the game, Spurs simply played in front of Portsmouth’s deep-lying midfield.

Avram Grant deployed a defensive 4-5-1 formation, with Mark Wilson and Michael Brown providing the midfield cover whilst Ricardo Rocha and South-African midfielder Aaron Mokoena played out of their skin at centre-half. When possible, Pompey broke on Spurs at pace, with Piquionne proving to be a handful for Sebastian Bassong and Michael Dawson, whilst Yebda, Aruna Dindane and Kevin-Prince Boateng, all posed a threat to Spurs on the break-away. It was a shrewd team selection by Avram Grant, and in essence, the game-plan worked.

Whilst Grant deserves credit for masterminding a famous Pompey triumph, the goal that won the game owed more to the Wembley surface than it did to tactics or attacking play. With the game in extra time, a Mark Wilson free-kick was lofted into the Tottenham box after Dawson was harshly judged to have felled Piquionne. Boateng headed the ball downward, leaving Dawson with a simple clearance. However, the Tottenham defender slipped on the treacherous Wembley surface, leaving Piquionne with the simplest of tap-ins in the ninth minute of extra-time.

Tottenham replied instantly, with Pavlyuchenko narrowly missing out after more excellent work by Tottenham’s best player. Gareth Bale. Then, three minutes later, Alan Wiley somehow adjudged Niko Kranjcar to have felled David James, and disallowed Peter Crouch’s goal. Tottenham huffed and puffed, committed most of the team forward, but could not find the break through to bring the tie level. With three minutes of extra-time left, Palacios brought down Dindane in the penalty area, and Wiley awarded a spot-kick. Palacios was booked, and will now miss matches with both Arsenal and Chelsea in Tottenham’s Premier League run-in. Boateng buried the resulting penalty, sending Pompey fans and players alike into delirium.

The result yesterday capped what has been a remarkable season for Portsmouth. However, a lingering question remains; should a squad that has been cheatingly assembled be allowed to compete in the FA Cup? If they were deducted nine points for cheating in the Premier League, should this not apply to cup competitions? On my part it is probably nothing but sour grapes. The Portsmouth players deserved their victory after battling for 120 minutes, whilst the fans, who have been the real victims in the whole sorry saga at Fratton Park this season, deserved their day.

Tottenham must now raise themselves for the North London derby against Arsenal at White Hart Lane on Wednesday. Whilst the FA Cup dream is now over, a fourth place finish is still a possibility. Whilst the odds are against Spurs, Portsmouth have shown that it’s not over till it’s over, and if the Spurs players show even an ounce of the courage displayed by the Portsmouth team yesterday, the Champions League dream might not be over just yet.

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Article title: Our Man In The Stand – Mark Turner

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