Salif Diao's winner in added time inflicted the cruellest of defeats on Portsmouth but the true significance of this fixture will not be known until the club's fate is decided by the High Court on 1 March. Facing a winding-up petition served by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs over an unpaid £12.1m tax bill, the club must prove it is not insolvent. If it fails to convince the court, this game will be remembered as the club's last ever match at Fratton Park, the club's home throughout its 112-year history.
The sense of foreboding was not eased by the events during this game. Portsmouth appeared certain to claim at least one point after Frédéric Piquionne had given them an early lead, and they remained in control even after Robert Huth equalised, even more so when the Stoke full-back Andy Wilkinson was sent off in the 73rd minute after collecting a second yellow card.
But there have been no shortage of gut-wrenching disappointments on this part of the south coast recently. The latest came when Diao finished from close range two minutes into added time after Ricardo Fuller's breakaway and cross. Somehow it seemed fitting that this was the midfielder's first goal for six years.
Attention now switches back to the efforts to save the club. The Portsmouth board discovered shortly before this game that their request to offload more players outside of the transfer window had been rejected by the Premier League. Unable to cash in on their playing assets, they must find other ways of plugging the holes in the balance sheet before they return to the High Court.
Latest reports suggest Portsmouth need to find more than £20m of additional revenue to keep going to the end of the season, or around £14m if the club opts to go into administration. Endeavour Plan, a Hong Kong- based investment company, are believed to have expressed an interest in becoming Portsmouth's fifth owners this season but a deal is clearly far from being concluded.
Administration will bring with it a nine-point penalty, a punishment that would all but guarantee relegation and render the commendable efforts of Avram Grant and his players to salvage something from a nightmare season pointless.
"Since I came, I have heard so many times 'this could be the last game'," said a beleaguered Grant. "We are living here from day to day. We are trying to do everything to save the future of the club. At the moment I don't want to think the worst. I am still optimistic because football is not a normal business."
It is to Portsmouth's credit that they have maintained an impressive level of commitment and while their plight at the foot of the table looks desperate, they at least appear convinced the position is not irretrievable. Piquionne's 35th-minute goal was reward for those efforts, the French striker reacting well after Stoke's goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen failed to hold Quincy Owusu-Abeyie's shot.
Portsmouth are not labouring at the foot of the table without good reason, however, and for all their determined efforts further up the field, they have proved vulnerable in defence on too many occasions. And the pattern continued when, five minutes after the restart, Huth was allowed to rise unhindered to meet Glenn Whelan's corner and direct a powerful header past David James.
"It's not so easy with the things that happen off the pitch but I hope at the end of the day we will have some stability and I hope the court and the Premier League will understand there is also a responsibility about the game," added Grant. "Because this football team not only belongs to the people that are in charge. It also belongs to the fans and other people and we also need to think about this."
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: O'Hara
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content