After soup on suit, egg on face. Having done the hard part by ending Arsenal's unbeaten run amid the pandemonium of Old Trafford last Sunday, Manchester United slid to defeat despite dominating most of an eventful game in the South Coast sunshine. Time after time they set up shooting opportunities - 18 in all - only to fail for want a finish. In the meantime Portsmouth, spirited as ever at raucous Fratton Park, broke out in the second half to claim a disputed penalty and a route-one second goal.
Ferguson appeared in front of selected media representatives afterwards without so much as a smudge on his smart white shirt but with a serious blemish on his team's record, which he acknowledged in admirably honest fashion. "That was a bad, bad performance and an awful defeat," he said. "The result of last weekend has been absolutely destroyed. I'm not going to make excuses. We should have been well in front after 30 minutes but we didn't ram home our advantage. I can't accept the number of missed chances. We've let everybody down."
It was United's first defeat since losing at Chelsea on the opening day of the season, but they have drawn too many games and with Arsenal dropping more points, this was a glorious opportunity spurned to demonstrate serious intent to have a say in the championship chase. Nine points already looks an awful lot to make up on the two London contenders with a squad that is settling down but still lacks a certain something. Yesterday it was the killer pass from a midfield in which Roy Keane's best days are behind him and the final touch that Ruud van Nistelrooy on song might have provided.
The Dutchman has been off-key, however, and was missing, of course, suspended for his dreadful challenge on Ashley Cole now that the FA's disciplinary process has finally clunked into third gear. Alan Smith replaced him, paired with his England colleague Wayne Rooney, but neither was sharp enough with his shooting and the teenager was in some danger of being sent off once or twice after collecting a yellow card before half-time for fouling the outstandingly industrious Nigel Quashie.
Portsmouth, who beat United here last April for the first time since 1957, initially opted for a bold strategy in fielding three strikers, but kept Lomana LuaLua and the new Senegalese find Diomansky Kamara out wide, which tended to leave Yakubu Aiyegbeni isolated up the middle. Kamara had been booked in his previous two games for removing his shirt after scoring, but there was no cause for celebration yesterday, a foul by Paul Scholes forcing his withdrawal after half an hour.
Ricardo Fuller came on to offer more direct assistance for Yakubu and the home side were able to hoist themselves back into a game that United dominated early on, raining half-a-dozen shots at Shaka Hislop's goal in the first 15 minutes. Scholes hit the best, in the fourth minute, forcing a good save, and Ronaldo would have scored two minutes later had his finish from Ryan Giggs's chip been calmer.
Towards half-time, however, there was more to excite the already vociferous home crowd. First the normally reliable Gabriel Heinze failed to stop Fuller pulling the ball back from the byline and Gary Neville had to clear LuaLua's shot. Then Smith headed out a corner to Amdy Faye, whose strong shot was touched over the bar by Roy Carroll. Add in a save by Hislop from Rooney and a volley wide by Ronaldo, and an invigorating first half produced more than a dozen worthwhile attempts on goal.
Redknapp made a tactical change for the second half, bringing on another of his imports from Africa, Valery Mezague, wide on the right and taking off Patrik Berger in order to adopt a more straightforward 4-4-2 system. The entertainment continued in unrelenting fashion with two saves by Hislop and then two Portsmouth goals very much against the run of play. In the 52nd minute Heinze held back Fuller, the referee, Neale Barry, indicating a shirt-pull and pointing to the spot. After Ferdinand had been booked, apparently for smashing the ball away in frustration, David Unsworth stepped up to hit a fierce kick past Carroll - the first goal United had conceded in five games.
They should have been level within a couple of minutes. Phil Neville crossed from the right, Ronaldo headed against a post and the rebound hit Smith a yard from goal and looped over the bar. After Keane and Louis Saha had replaced Neville and Smith, Heinze headed a free-kick by Giggs too high. It was beginning to look like one of those days, an impression confirmed by the second goal. Hislop launched a long clearance downfield and the predatory Yakubu went past Mikaël Silvestre and inside Ferdinand before hitting a shot that Carroll laid a glove on but could not keep out.
The rest of the half, like what had gone before, consisted of the home side being pushed back and breaking out when they could. LuaLua got forward once to pull a shot across goal, while at the other end nothing would run for the visitors however many bodies they poured into the penalty area. "We started a bit dodgy, but once we settled we were in the game," said Portsmouth's manager, Harry Redknapp. He was entitled to more than one glass of the best red wine he had promised Ferguson, who could be forgiven for wanting to hit the bottle.
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