Ugly, error-strewn, but effective, Aston Villa scrambled to a priceless victory yesterday that virtually condemned their opponents to relegation. Having taken just one point from 24, Portsmouth have to make up a deficit of at least eight in their final 10 fixtures if they are to haul themselves to safety.
On this evidence, it is an impossible task even for the mercurial Harry Redknapp. It now looks certain that he will be the first man to guide two different Premiership clubs to relegation in successive seasons.
After staying with his team in their changing-room for an hour after the final whistle, Redknapp declined to attend the post-match briefing. Instead, his captain, Gary O'Neil, was sent to represent him. He said: "Of course, we can still do it. We just need two quick wins..." His blind optimism was forgivable. Redknapp's absence was not.
A solitary goal, his 10th of the season, from Milan Baros after 36 minutes was all that separated these two sides by the end of a contest that did little for the much-hyped Premiership brand. On a difficult and uneven surface, in very cold conditions, it must have been as painful for the players to take part as it was for the majority of spectators to watch.
Baros, whose pace and movement had carried much threat from the start, made the breakthrough when, after Andy Griffin had fouled Gareth Barry, James Milner lifted a free-kick from the left to the far post. The Czech Republic striker, left totally unmarked, headed down past Dean Kiely with ease.
By then, Villa's right-back Jlloyd Samuel had given in to a virus and come off and Kevin Phillips had missed the first of several chances. He did manage to hit a post a few minutes later, but his profligacy undermined Villa's otherwise comfortable domination.
"It was not a great game," said Villa's assistant manager, Roy Aitken, with unintended understatement. "But they are a good three points for us. Phillips said straight away that he might have had two or three, but we now have a chance to pick up some more home wins and to climb the table."
This victory lifted Villa 11 points clear of the relegation scrap, but did little to boost their fans' confidence. To describe their play as mediocre would be flattering because, though they had most of the ball, they rarely employed the fluency and team-work that inspires dreams of glory. Frankly, Villa lived up to their supporters' jibes that they are cautious and unimaginative as they struggled to open up a team that went down to a ninth consecutive away defeat.
Once Baros was forced to limp off, following a heavy fall after an aerial clash with Matthew Taylor, the Villa attack lost its focal point. Phillips, quick-witted in his movement, was out of luck in his shooting. He saw drives pushed over, fly wide and blocked. So, too, did Steven Davis and Barry as the game progressed. Milner, frustratingly inconsistent, once accelerated smoothly past two defenders on the right, but directed his low diagonal shot wide.
Portsmouth emerged to seek an equaliser. Besieged by desperation, they still played with much individual skill, but there seemed to be no collective shape and little sign of a system. Only the speed and power of Lomana LuaLua truly threatened Villa.