There is already talk of Birmingham City qualifying for a European place this term. Ridiculously premature, but on the scant evidence of yesterday's performance at a stifling Fratton Park their much strengthened side should eventually prosper. As for Portsmouth, their usual struggles have begun early.
Of the two, Birmingham had got through last season less troubled by the spectre of relegation. Portsmouth, beset by injuries, managed to store up safety by way of their successful home record but Birmingham hinted they could establish themselves among the regular top third.
Steve Bruce's ability to persuade the experienced Emile Heskey, Muzzy Izzet, Jesper Gronkjaer, Mario Melchiot and Darren Anderton to shine up, suggests an even better season this time. Harry Redknapp, who said last night that "16 or 17 players cannot get you through a Premiership programme", continues to battle against financial restraints yet could bring out the best from the sometimes brilliant, often unpredictable Lomano LuaLua, bought from Newcastle for £1.75m.
Anderton was absent, not fully fit (surprise, surprise), but Heskey had recovered from knee ligament trouble. Birmingham strolled comfortably in the opening stages to take a 10th-minute lead, aided by a dubiously awarded free-kick given when Damien Johnson fell easily approaching the area. Robbie Savage curled the free-kick in off the hands of Shaka Hislop and the bar.
Not that the lead survived for long. Five minutes later, Stan Lazaridis pushed Steve Stone and the referee balanced his earlier generosity, allowing David Unsworth to rap in the penalty.
Portsmouth stepped up the pace, tackles raged (often from Savage, of course), the referee barely kept up and he engaged the home crowd's wrath when refusing to send off Martin Taylor when he brought down Yakubu Aiyegbeni, who was on a direct run to goal. Sweaty, riveting stuff on a blazing afternoon.
Despite the heat, the long chase was predominant, although Izzet showed what an asset he should be with his influential movement, passing and ability to slip tackles. Birmingham's understanding was greater but Portsmouth's familiar, gutsy approach kept them equal on chances.
Yakubu was cleverly put in possession by Patrik Berger but was blocked by Maik Taylor, and gradually LuaLua emerged from a quiet first half to challenge Izzet for the title of principal playmaker in a match lacking many other rivals. Portsmouth were fortunate not to concede a penalty when Linvoy Primus handled and Bruce was justified in calling it "blatant". Taylor then managed to clear one-handedly after stumbling to the ground. Amazingly, he repeated the effort when first pushing out a drive from Unsworth, then stopping the return from LuaLua while again stranded on the ground.
Yet he was upstaged in the last minute as Hislop caught a fierce, bending drive from substitute Clinton Morrison.Reuse content