Commentary: 'Kick in the teeth' leaves Ferguson in the soup

Portsmouth 2 - Manchester United 0
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The Independent Football

When Rio Ferdinand said, in the wake of Manchester United's controversial defeat of Arsenal eight days ago, that refereeing decisions "tend to even themselves up over a season," he could not have imagined how quickly his words would become reality. Nor, when he added of that win, "this will mean nothing if we don't beat Portsmouth next week", could he have expected that observation would also prove prophetic.

Ferdinand's words came to mind 51 minutes into this match when he angrily belted the ball out of Fratton Park in anger at Neale Barry's decision to award a penalty after Ricardo Fuller had fallen under Ferdinand's challenge. That Portsmouth were the victims of Arsenal's most notorious penalty award, given after Robert Pires dived at Highbury last year, completed a circle without virtue.

At least Portsmouth's penalty, calmly converted by David Unsworth, was less dubious than the others even if it was contentious. Like Arsenal at Old Trafford, United had to push forward and were caught, Ayegbeni Yakubu embarrassing Mikaël Silvestre, Ferdinand and Roy Carroll to add a second goal. Portsmouth thus underlined their growing status as an established Premiership side and effectively detonated United's revived title challenge.

"It is a real kick in the teeth to us," said the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, "a terrible disappointment. We've let everyone down. Last weekend's result is absolutely destroyed now."

This was Portsmouth's second win over United at Fratton in six months, some achievement given that they had not previously beaten them in 47 years. Yet while it was unexpected it was not as surprising as Southampton's draw at Highbury.

Portsmouth have become a decent side combining commitment with flair and pace. Their ground, however, has not kept pace with the team's development and the South Stand is, by Premiership standards, a slum.

A rare surviving example of the work of the Scottish architect Archibald Leitch, whose criss-cross façades were once seen across the football landscape, the South Stand is 80 years old next year. The relevant aspect to Saturday is that the dressing-rooms are in this stand and the Portsmouth manager, Harry Redknapp, admitted with a certain relish, the away one is not fitted out to the standard United's players have come to expect.

"Cor, you've got to see it to believe it," he said with a grin. "It's worse than they were at [Millwall's notoriously cramped] old Den. It's rough down there and that helps us, just like The Dell used to benefit Southampton."

Portsmouth's victory was not just down to Wayne Rooney having to jostle for peg room with Alan Smith, United's own inadequacies played a part. Their finishing was even poorer than their defending. Paul Scholes' three-year international goal-drought attracted much attention, but less noticed is his failure to score for his club in 19 games dating back to April. Scholes admitted, after scoring for England in Euro 2004, that the run had played on his mind and his domestic failings may be doing so, too, because he would once have buried the clear chances he was offered at the beginning of each half. Instead, he shot at Shaka Hislop who was equally grateful to see Smith miss from three yards at 0-1 after Cristiano Ronaldo headed against the post.

Ronaldo and Rooney also wasted opportunities as United dominated the early stages but perhaps the most significant miss was the retaliatory haymaker Nigel Quashie swung at Rooney after 42 minutes. Rooney was cautioned for his tackle, but the industrious Quashie was let off. "You could tell Rooney used to box. He bobbed and weaved, didn't he?" said Redknapp, adding: "I'm glad he did - otherwise Quashie would have been sent off." Rooney should later have suffered that same fate after kicking Amdy Faye. Barry also allowed Scholes to kick Diomansy Kamara out of the game and Smith to raise a hand to Valery Mezague without punishment. For the second time in a week it seemed that the new laissez-faire refereeing culture has gone too far.

Though United rarely looked like coming back, the home crowd, remembering so many United comebacks, did not dare celebrate until injury time. The professionals were less apprehensive. "I thought we were comfortable at the end," admitted Redknapp. "The fear factor of playing the likes of Man United is not a problem for us," added Unsworth.

This is alarming in itself for Ferguson and there was another feature that will have infuriated him: United, having left Roy Keane on the bench, were outfought. Faye, having been in the thick of the midfield battle, had an explanation: "It's not the same for them," he said, "playing against Portsmouth after playing Arsenal. Last week's game was such a very, very big game in England. Then they come here and maybe they don't have the same motivation. Last week they had all the motivation to win. This week we had all the motivation."

Goals: Unsworth pen (52) 1-0; Yakubu (72) 2-0.

Portsmouth (4-1-4-1): Hislop; Primus, Stefanovic, De Zeeuw, Unsworth; Faye; LuaLua, Quashie, Berger (Mezague, h-t), Kamara (Fuller, 32); Yakubu. Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), Cissé, Griffin.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll; G Neville (Brown, 80), Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Ronaldo, P Neville (Keane, 64), Scholes, Giggs; Rooney, Smith (Saha, 64). Substitutes not used: Ricardo (gk), Miller.

Referee: N Barry (Lincolnshire).

Booked: Manchester United: Rooney, Ferdinand.

Man of the match: Quashie.

Attendance: 20,190.