Chelsea 1 Portsmouth 0: James fails to convince as Chelsea take pole position

McClaren's dilemma goes on after hesitant display from England's No 2
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The Independent Football

Whether in artistic or goalkeeping guise, David James enjoys giving an exhibition. Yesterday, even he would probably admit, it was not his finest piece of work that he placed in front of his most demanding judges, the England coach Steve McClaren and his assistant Terry Venables, who, if they were looking to solve their goalkeeping dilemma after England's defeat by Germany, were no more the wiser after this. For that duo, it is back to the drawing board.

The curious aspect was, given that James was facing the club who already consider themselves champions-elect, the 37-year-old was not exactly overworked. However, he will not reflect well on the manner in which Frank Lampard's venomous drive from outside the area eluded him for what transpired to be the winner during an unconvincing first half for the former Aston Villa and Liverpool man.

It did not exactly rate full-on "Calamity" status, but nor will it have instilled karma in the watching England hierarchy. "I don't know if it took a deflection; I'll have to have a look later," was about the extent of his manager Harry Redknapp's non-committal reply, preferring to stress his admiration for James's quality as a "fantastic professional".

Unconvincing was also an adjective which could also apply to Jose Mourinho's men after a victory that left Chelsea top of the table, and more crucially eight points in front of Manchester United. The Chelsea manager attributed a generally turgid performance to post-international-week-itis and the heat. Certainly, for half an hour his players had the look of men who had forgotten each other over the preceding few days.

James, who could be restored as England's No1 against Israel in 13 days' time after Paul Robinson's indifferent display on Wednesday night, was virtually redundant as Portsmouth largely negated the threat of the Londoners. Claudio Pizarro headed over Florent Malouda's inswinging free-kick, but otherwise the visitors, with Sol Campbell restored to the side, defended stoutly. Indeed, Pompey had the best opportunity of the opening exchanges. Kanu's low right-wing cross was well-struck by Matt Taylor, but a challenge from Tal Ben Haim deflected the ball wide.

Mourinho's irritation with his side was evident from his histrionics on the touchline, but his men duly responded on the half hour. Didier Drogba collected Petr Cech's long clearance, and cleverly back-heeled the ball to Lampard who thumped the ball low and firmly past James. It seemed to affect the keeper, too. Before half-time, James spilled Wright-Phillips's effort, and then had his hands burnt by another attempt from Lampard.

The England coaches were also scrutinising Campbell and the Chelsea quintet, Terry, Lampard, Wright-Phillips, Ashley and Joe Cole, although the last-named started on the bench again. All impressed, although Terry, as Redknapp opined, was given a severe examination by the remarkable Kanu who appears to improve with the years.

The Brazilian attacking right-back, Juliano Belletti, Chelsea's £3.75 million acquisition from Barcelona, began his new career on the bench, but appeared late in the game, as did Pompey's David Nugent, who has been linked with a swift move on to Derby. Redknapp did not dismiss that possibility, but added: "we're happy to keep him".

If Chelsea believed they could stroll to victory, having forged into a lead, they were sorely mistaken. Pompey have a touch of class about them which extended their hosts to the limit, with Sulley Muntari prominent.

Just after the break, Kanu, under pressure in the area, set up Sean Davis, but the midfielder turned the ball over Cech's bar. Then O'Neill fired just wide. He was immediately replaced by Benjani Mwaruwari, who went close as Pompey strove for an equaliser they fully merited.

Though James, with an improved second-half performance got down well to save a deflected attempt from Michael Essien and later also thwarted Drogba, there was too much activity at the opposite end for Chelsea fans liking. The Portsmouth bench were all ready to celebrate the equaliser when Nugent contrived to strike the back of Kanu with a goal-bound effort. Then, as the ball bounced up off the striker, Hermann Hreidarsson's header had to be cleared off the line by Ashley Cole.

Essien, who made a fine contribution, apparently does appreciate the perils of hubris, claiming before yesterday that Manchester United are already too far behind Chelsea to catch up. Now that advantage has been extended further. But after four games? Sir Alex may have something to say about such audacity today.