Football: Pompey's tight strategy

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Portsmouth. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3

Oxford United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

IT WORKED out perfectly for Portsmouth. Needing to win and score three goals to displace West Ham in second place in the First Division, if only temporarily, they did precisely that. It was their sixth successive victory and the fifth consecutive game in which they have kept a clean sheet.

Their charge should worry not just the Hammers, who moved back ahead of Portsmouth with a 2-2 home draw against Millwall yesterday, but also the leaders, Newcastle; both have been fallible recently. As Jim Smith, the Portsmouth manager, put it: 'It takes the pressure off us in terms of the play-offs, but the pressure is coming back on us to go for second spot.' It is in their favour that their remaining eight matches look easier than those of their rivals: the most difficult hurdle on current form is the next, away to Millwall on 3 April.

The manager's equilibrium is an important factor in such trying times and Smith, a most likeable man, did his best to present an urbane front: but it was not altogether persuasive. The hand clutching his Havana twitched as if attached to electrodes and the word 'nerves' figured prominently in his conversation.

Neither were his team convincing in the first half but, after the interval, it was not hard to see why Oxford United are too close to the wrong end of the table to be comfortable. In the end, Portsmouth won at a canter after they had been given two goals.

The first, in the 50th minute, was headed into his own net with great panache by Les Robinson after Paul Walsh had again shown his ability to make something out of nothing with a turn and cross of delightful dexterity. That was hard on the Oxford right-back, who later came closest to scoring at the other end with a crisp shot which hit the inside of a post.

The third, after 63 minutes, was presented to Guy Whittingham when Oxford's goalkeeper, Paul Reece, fumbled Warren Aspinall's shot. It was Whittingham's 40th goal of the season and he now needs six more in the League to break Portsmouth's all- time scoring record set by Billy 'Farmer' Haines in 1926-27.

In between was a moment of pure class when Walsh rode two tackles and fed Alan McLoughlin who, with a calmness Kipling would have admired, chipped the ball adroitly over Reece. McLoughlin revealed that his goal was 'pre-planned', the result of careful study of the habits of opposing goalkeepers.

The Republic of Ireland midfielder has a rare shrewdness about him. With Walsh's invention - according to Smith he has created '75 per cent' of his side's goals - Whittingham's voracious appetite for net-bulging and the languid unpredictability of Mark Chamberlain, Portsmouth are difficult to defend against.

Attacking them is not easy either, especially at Fratton Park where they have the best defensive record in all four divisions. Oxford never unravelled the riddle and did not force a serious save out of Alan Knight.

Even so, Portsmouth do not look a better side than West Ham, who have beaten them twice in the League this season. Yet Smith is convinced he has the right strategy for the run-in. 'If we keep it tight, we have the individuals to win matches,' he said. On Saturday's evidence it is a sound approach though perfection may not be so easily achieved again.

Goals: Robinson og (49) 1-0; McLoughlin (59) 2-0; Whittingham (63) 3-0.

Portsmouth: Knight; Awford, Butters, McLoughlin (Murray, 78), Aspinall, Daniel, Price, Chamberlain (Lawrence, 83), Walsh, Whittingham, Kristensen.

Oxford United: Reece; Robinson, Ford, Phillips, Evans, Melville, Magilton, Beauchamp, Cusack, Durnin, Lewis. Substitutes not used: Penney, Allen.

Referee: A Gunn (South Chailey).