Those Liverpool fans with longer memories know what Tony Adams can do to title hopes. It is 20 seasons since he arrived at Anfield with the Arsenal side which robbed them of the league championship in a way which will always be burnished across the club's soul.
It looked like there was going to be a reminder of that night here, as the hour came and went and the new league leaders' best chances yielded nothing against Adam's new charges. Then Rafael Benitez's side provided more evidence of why they might just be challenging, come May, like they did when Adams was beginning his days in Arsenal's defence. They are driven in a way they have not been for years and were driven on here by a captain, Steven Gerrard, who is playing every league game like as if it were his last. The reward was a 75th-minute penalty which delivered them all the points, when in recent years they would have gone home with one on such a night.
The handball with which Papa Bouba Diop handed Liverpool the initiative was so bizarre that it was hard to accept Adams' claim that he did not blame him. "I'm doing the technical thing with him not the teacup thing," Adams said. "I remember coming here [with Arsenal when] Ray Parlour gave away a penalty and went away with nothing. Papa just panicked." Nowhere in the technical manual is the volleyball technique Diop deployed, reaching across Sami Hyypia to push the ball, two-handed, away from him as he shaped to head Fabio Aurelio's corner. Gerrard gleefully deposited the penalty low to the right of David James.
It was no more than Liverpool deserved having played for most of the half with a quality of passing game which assuaged the anxieties of fans who arrived to find that Rafael Benitez was resorting to his old rotation tricks. There were five changes from the settled Liverpool side with Hyypia, Ryan Babel, Jermaine Pennant and Lucas Leiva all in. Xabi Alonso had kept his place and delivered another mighty first half display.
"After the victory against Chelsea it was very important to get these three points, and show that we can change four or five players and still win matches. There was a message for the squad, the players and everyone: we can change players and still win," Benitez said, revealing that Riera had been experiencing fitness problems as well as Keane, with his groin trouble. "With three games in a week we must do it again."
The manager's logic would have been less convincing had the night's best chance been converted – Diop again the culprit, heading harmlessly into the arms of Pepe Reina after Sean Davis had clipped a ball between Hyypia and Jamie Carragher to find him unmarked just before the half hour.
Just before the goal arrived, it looked like it just might be one of those nights. Ryan Babel drifted out of the game in a way which was maddening, considering the way he bisected Diop and and Noe Pamarot and ran into the box in the first half. Dirk Kuyt was not the menace he had seemed when he took a ninth minute pass from Alvaro Arbeloa and hit a fierce low drive which David James managed to palm onto his right post. Adams, shifting less uneasily in his new seat, flashed raised thumbs as Sylvain Distin and Younes Kaboul got the measure of Liverpool and the visiting fans finally asked, in so many words, who was Harry Redknapp.
A more pressing inquiry involved Adams' decision to leave out Jermain Defoe, part of the proven goalscoring partnership with Peter Crouch who had netted six in nine games this season. "Dropping him?" Adams exclaimed when it was put to to him that doing so must have been difficult. "I will make tactical, technical physiological and emotional decisions. I want Jermain to be top goalscorer in the league, but tonight against the league leaders, I set my stall out be resilient, difficult to beat. That's why [he] was rested." Adams said Defoe had been rubbing a shin and took it well but it seemed a negative move for a side which was so recently aspiring to a European place.
Gerrard is one man Adams would not tinker with. "With Stevie playing [like this] Liverpool could win [the league]," he said. "Can I swap him?" Benitez has more grounds to refuse than ever.
Goal: Gerrard pen (76) 1-0.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurelio; Lucas, Alonso; Pennant (Benayoun, 63), Gerrard (Keane, 90), Babel (Riera, 71); Kuyt. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Dossena, Agger, Mascherano.
Portsmouth (4-5-1): James; Pamarot, Kaboul, Distin, Belhadj; Utaka (Defoe, 85), Bouba Diop, Diarra (Hughes, 80), Davis, Traoré (Kranjcar, 64); Crouch. Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), Kanu, Mvuemba, Hreidarsson
Referee: S Tanner (Somerset).
Booked: Portsmouth Diarra; Belhadj, Diop.
Man of the match: Gerrard.
Attendance: 43,378.Reuse content