There are times when a team are such overwhelming favourites to win a football match that the best the opposition can do is to use that imbalance as motivation, if not actual insult. The FA Cup often throws up such games and part of its still widespread appeal is that whole books have been written with titles like "The Giantkillers". If Portsmouth manage to defeat Chelsea in next Saturday's final, they will deserve a chapter to themselves.
History, the underdogs try to tell us in these circumstances, counts for nothing once the first whistle blows. Yet recent history tells a tale, and a depressing one it is for the team who could still have finished bottom of the Premier League even without having nine points deducted for collapsing into administration earlier this season.
The tale is that they have beaten Chelsea before, but not unfortunately since 1960, in the first season of the Football League Cup. That was 28 meetings ago. More recently and therefore relevantly Chelsea have won the last five matches with a goal difference of 16-1, which includes inflicting a 5-0 humiliation at Fratton Park less than two months ago.
So, John Utaka, how optimistic is the Pompey dressing-room feeling about this one? "I don't believe in words like 'impossible'," the Nigerian forward insists. "I believe all things are possible. When you believe, you can achieve anything. When you don't, you have no chance. I don't believe in underdogs and I don't believe in bookmakers. It's 90 minutes of football and it is 11 v 11. We believe. We wouldn't have made the final if that was not the case." He has a point, and could have added a small boast about reaching that final for the second time in three seasons. Indeed, it was his cross in 2008 from which Nwankwo Kanu was able to poke in the goal that won the Cup against Cardiff City. That team may have been decimated, leaving Utaka as one of only four survivors for this week, but they have made it this far again, and on the back of one of the most surprising results of the season.
Defeating Tottenham in the semi-final to prevent a repeat of the 1967 Cockney Cup final was a deserved success on a rare day of sunshine during a campaign played mostly under darkest clouds. Utaka, signed from Rennes three summers ago for £7 million, has been forced to suffer criticism from the club's own supporters at times after it was suggested amid the financial ruins that he was receiving £80,000 each week in his pay packet. Both he and the club's heroic manager Avram Grant claimed the figure was far less and the player now says: "I think the criticism is a thing of the past. People will criticise you whatever you do. They are things you have to obstruct, because if you keep them in your mind you can't play football. It also helps a bit because the critics can give you motivation. That is the way I see it. As long as I know what I do, that is what is important. Fingers crossed I can get out there and score the winner, but the most important thing is that we win."
It seems certain to be his final game, for the club can hardly hope to keep him, or the other Cup winners – David James, Papa Bouba Diop and Kanu – in the Championship. "This is not about money, it's about pride," Utaka says. "We want to do well so people remember you for the good things. Money is secondary. The important thing is to focus on the Cup game, and then things will be discussed afterwards. We play the game we love to play and then we will see what happens. The whole season hasn't been easy, but where there is weakness there is strength. We are all motivated for the game. It will be a game to enjoy."
That will hardly apply if Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda and Frank Lampard are allowed the space they were granted to ease through Portsmouth's defence in the 5-0 romp, when the weakness and the strength were easy to identify. Having won the trophy on either side of Portsmouth's success, Chelsea are not Cup virgins, and despite coming back for a third final with a third different manager, their players have made Carlo Ancelotti as aware of the competition's significance as they did Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink. "In Italy [the Cup] is not interesting, it's the last competition," Ancelotti says. "Here it's different, I know this because the English players spoke with me in my first games in the FA Cup about the importance."
Comfortably seeing off lower-division opposition and then Stoke City and Aston Villa, Chelsea have regularly fielded strong sides along the way. Barring an unexpected twist at Stamford Bridge today, they will take the field as the Premier League champions, against the bottom team, which means Grant – however well acquainted he is with so many of his former players – is facing an altogether different task to catching Spurs on a bad day in the semi-final.
Ancelotti is naturally cautious at this stage, especially given what is at stake today but he was prepared to say: "Portsmouth have been relegated but I want to mention, and I have it very clear in my mind, that they beat Tottenham in the semi-finals and Tottenham, in this month, played very good football and did fantastically well beating Chelsea, beating Arsenal and Manchester City. The job [Grant] has done has been very difficult and to bring Portsmouth to the final means he did a very good job."
Commiserations rather than congratulations would nevertheless seem to be the more likely offering from Italian to Israeli at 5pm on Saturday.
How they got there...
Third round Watford (home) 5-0
A romp to start with. Daniel Sturridge scores his first goals for the club as Watford are outclassed.
Fourth round Preston (away) 2-0
Carlo Ancelotti picks a strong side and is rewarded with goals from Nicolas Anelka and Sturridge.
Fifth round Cardiff (home) 4-1
Level at half-time but Didier Drogba becomes the dominant figure, setting up goals for Michael Ballack and Sturridge to add to his own.
Sixth round Stoke (home) 2-0
Frank Lampard puts Chelsea ahead and John Terry heads in his corner.
Semi-final Aston Villa 3-0
Flattering scoreline. Chelsea are 1-0 up in 89th minute (Drogba). Florent Malouda and Lampard net late on.
Third round Coventry (home) 1-1; (away) 2-1 after extra time
Kevin Prince-Boateng's equaliser at home prevents an upset before Aaron Mokoena's goal in extra time wins the replay.
Fourth round Sunderland (home) 2-1
For the third tie running Portsmouth come from behind, two goals from John Utaka winning it after Darren Bent puts visitors in front.
Fifth round Southampton (away) 4-1
Hugely enjoyable win on the ground of their greatest rivals, who have the best of the first half before Pompey run in four goals in 18 minutes.
Sixth round Birmingham (home) 2-0
Placed in administration, Pompey survive Liam Ridgewell scare as two goals from French striker Frédéric Piquionne put them through.
Semi-final Tottenham 2-0
Extraordinary run continues as Portsmouth take advantage of a below-par Spurs, Piquionne scoring again before Boateng adds a late penalty against his former club.
Steve TongueReuse content