Roles reversed in South Coast showdown

Debt-riddled Portsmouth face Saints in the FA Cup today, with their bitter rivals full of hope thanks to Liebherr's millions
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The Independent Football

Rarely has there been a tale of two cities quite like the one involving Portsmouth and Southampton in the last transfer window.

While Avram Grant's side were left wondering which player would be shipping out from the South Coast next – goalkeeper Asmir Begovic did not even turn up for training before the defeat at Manchester City – Saints were quietly acquiring four new faces and a fifth on loan. They were the 11th-highest spenders across the entire English leagues in the window.

It makes for a South Coast derby like few others in the FA Cup fifth round at St Mary's this lunchtime, the first game between the sides since Portsmouth's 4-1 win at Fratton Park in April 2005, which offered proof positive that Saints really were doomed to second-tier football for the first time since 1978. It was also seasoned by a certain Harry Redknapp – a Southampton manager beaten by the Portsmouth team he had built, as he reminded us all that day. "I signed every one of 'em" Redknapp declared at the end.

Both clubs' contours have been steep since then, Southampton's leading them deep to the south – down two divisions and to the brink of non- existence – Portsmouth's north. But while Sacha Gaydamak's house of cards at Pompey, which held together for the 2008 FA Cup triumph, was beginning to reveal itself for what it was last July, Southampton were awakened from their slumbers by the arrival of Swiss businessman Markus Liebherr as proprietor.

Liebherr's appearance in Southampton was the source of minimal excitement beyond the South Coast, even though wealth from engineering businesses standing at around €3bn (£2.6bn) and his purchase of the club for around £12m bestowed upon Saints the wealthiest proprietor outside the Premier League. While the loud but elusive Sulaiman al-Fahim, who seemed to have bought Portsmouth but had actually not, promised so much, the word from the Liebherr camp was that the club would be taken back up to the "higher echelons", but pragmatically. There was no money to burn.

Liebherr has deliberately kept out of his new football business. He is one of the few proprietors who does not sit on the board and seeks no direct involvement. He is a fan and wants it to stay that way, his people say. But he has installed a tough, driven executive chairman in Nicola Cortese, who brings a sports finance background, having arrived in Hampshire from a sports business desk background at Credit Suisse and Banque Heritage. The two men are both Swiss nationals but Alan Pardew, the man Liebherr installed on advice from within his new club, will tell you that Cortese is the tough one.

Saints might have started the League One season with a 10-point deduction, having entered administration, but the minimum pre-agreed aim with Pardew is the play-offs and there is no romance in the boardroom about reaching a fifth-round tie like today's - or the Johnstone's Paint final against Carlisle at Wembley. Fail to make some serious inroads on the League One table and Pardew could be gone before the end of the season, and he is not exaggerating when he likens being in charge of Saints to being "like the Manchester City manager of League One". He explains: "Everyone wants to gun you down. We are the ones spending money, the big club, so you have got to be good enough to handle it. The owners think the same. They are not investing to finish second."

There are marked similarities with Mark Hughes. Pardew's position is already under a degree of threat, with Cortese wanting to know how his players have managed to draw eight games 1-1 this season, seven of them having seen Saints go into a 1-0 lead.

But not even a demanding board will stop Pardew dreaming of some Cup glory and remembering his part in perhaps the old tournament's greatest match of the last decade – when his West Ham side ran Liverpool so close in the so-called Steven Gerrard final of 2005. "The cups are for the fans. You only develop as a club in the league," Pardew reflects at the club's New Forest training ground which is soon to be demolished and rebuilt into the most eco-friendly in the country – Cortese being heavily into environmentalism.

"I was seven minutes away from winning the cup when [Crystal Palace's] Gary O'Reilly left [Manchester United's] Mark Hughes unmarked and he scored an equaliser," the manager adds, recalling the exhilarating 3-3 final in 1990 which United won in a replay. "I was stoppage time away [from a win] with West Ham [in 2005] so I am getting closer. I have played in every round of the FA Cup from the first round proper to the final and I understand what it means."

Pardew has "a few captains, people with personalities," as he puts it, to turn the screw on Portsmouth. The season's big signings – Rickie Lambert, League One's joint top scorer at Bristol Rovers last season and the ex-Colchester captain Dean Hammond – will nurture a belief that Portsmouth, despite their 11 internationals, might understandably struggle to muster.

Grant believes this is the moment to repay fans for their loyalty, though. "I have told the players we cannot change the problems that exist but the one thing we can do is reward the fans on the pitch," he says. "Their support has been very touching. They have given so much energy, so much passion to me and the team and I respect them. I have been to the big derbies in Buenos Aires, Milan and Turkey but I think the atmosphere here is bigger."

His side are potentially four days away from an administration of their own, with the inevitable relegation that will spell and history also weighs against them. Saints have won all four of the clubs' previous FA Cup meetings at the first time of asking and have not lost a game in 2010.

It's incredible what the power of the Cup can do though. Portsmouth fans won't be able to unfurl the "Welcome to Hell" banner they unravelled on that April day five years ago but they'll still believe fire and fight can override finance – for one afternoon at least.

Fierce enemies' contrasting fortunes

*Southampton high points:

1976 FA Cup victory

A momentous triumph for Southampton over Manchester United, with a goal from Bobby Stokes, while...

Portsmouth were relegated to the old Third Division in 1976, experiencing severe financial concerns which threatened their existence, and eventually ended up in the Fourth Division.

2003 FA Cup runners-up

Southampton's continuing success in remaining in the top flight since 1978 culminated in an unlikely FA Cup final appearance against Arsenal – which they lost – while...

Portsmouth were in the Championship, albeit striding to the title under Harry Redknapp, winning 98 points and scoring 97 goals.

Portsmouth high points:

1949 & 1950 Successive titles

Portsmouth swept to consecutive First Division titles with a talented side including the legendary Jimmy Dickinson, while...

Southampton were ambling along in the old Second Division and went down soon afterwards.

2008 FA Cup victory

Redknapp, now back plying his trade on the blue side of the South Coast, led Portsmouth to their second FA Cup, beating Cardiff at Wembley. A kind route saw them paired with five lower league teams, excepting a win at Manchester United. While...

Southampton experienced a turbulent Championship season, narrowly avoiding relegation on the final day.

Southampton v Portsmouth: Today 12.30pm. TV: ITV1; Highlights ITV1 11pm. Tickets: Sold out.

New Saints arrivals Jose Fonte, Dan Seaborne, Jon Otsemebor and Jason Puncheon are all cup-tied, although Lee Barnard could figure having been cup-tied in mid-week. Fellow striker David Connelly [groin] could also make a return as the hosts look to maintain their unbeaten Cup record over their neighbours.

Portsmouth manager Avram Grant is without the suspended defender Ricardo Rocha following his dismissal against Sunderland on Tuesday. New arrival Dusko Tosic is awaiting international clearance while Michael Brown [back], Kevin-Prince Boateng [ankle], Anthony Vanden Borre [leg], Hermann Hreidarsson [Achilles] and John Utaka [hamstring] are also doubtful.

Leading scorers: Southampton: Lambert, 23. Portsmouth: Dindane, Piquionne, 6.

Last FA Cup meeting: Southampton 2 Portsmouth 1, fourth round, 2005.