There are many advantages to reaching the FA Cup final but the disadvantages, though fewer and less obvious, are more insidious. One only has to look at Portsmouth's record since they beat West Bromwich Albion in the semi-final at Wembley on 5 April to realise that an intoxicating Cup run, for all the joy it inspires, can hinder a league campaign.
Defeat at home to Blackburn Rovers yesterday, sealed by an exquisite goal from Roque Santa Cruz in the 74th minute, means that Portsmouth's hopes of qualifying for Europe through the Premier League have diminished to the brink of non-existence. They now rely on both Everton and Aston Villa falling into swift decline.
Portsmouth have picked up one point from their past three matches and for all the chances they created here, and despite a fine performance by Jermain Defoe, they seem to have their minds elsewhere. There were no jeers at the final whistle at Fratton Park – the Portsmouth supporters are far too happy to feel the need to descend into such negativity – but there was a prevailing concern.
The loss of momentum, a problem exacerbated by Defoe's ineligibility for the FA Cup final against Cardiff City on 17 May, means that Portsmouth are facing up to the possibility that their season could end in anticlimax, without even a place in the Uefa Cup.
"As far as I am concerned the FA Cup was always our main route into Europe," Harry Redknapp, the Portsmouth manager, said. "But I don't think we deserved to lose this match. In fact, I didn't think we would ever lose, and the goal we conceded was disappointing from a defensive point of view. I don't want to criticise any player but we could have dealt with the move much better."
Blackburn were also fighting for a European position, though their ambitions are more Intertoto than Uefa Cup. For the Paraguayan striker Santa Cruz, anything that takes Blackburn on to the continent next season would be a step in the right direction. Having tasted the Champions League with Bayern Munich before his £3.5m move to Lancashire last summer, he retains a special affection for European football – even if the Intertoto Cup would involve a July start to the new season.
"This victory at Portsmouth hopefully gives us something to fight for until the end of the season," Santa Cruz said. "That was always our main business, to qualify for Europe. We didn't play well enough in the first half to win but we were a different team in the second; it was then we realised we had a lot of things still to play for."
Santa Cruz's goal, which came a minute after Sulley Muntari had missed a chance from close range to give Portsmouth the lead, owed much to vision and good movement from Blackburn. Morten Gamst Pedersen began the move, feeding Santa Cruz on the edge of the penalty area. His wall pass with Jason Roberts sliced the Portsmouth defence in half and Santa Cruz finished with panache. It was his 21st goal of the season.
"We stepped it up 10 per cent in the second half and got a great goal with the interplay between our two strikers and it was finished well by Roque," Mark Hughes, the Blackburn manager, said. "Roque has had an outstanding season for what is his first in the Premier League. A win was our only option, really."
For the most part, however, it was Portsmouth who were attacking and it was Defoe who was consistently involved. He went close twice in a wretched first half and, with a good understanding of Nwankwo Kanu's movement off the ball, was a thorn in Blackburn's side in the second.
It seems inappropriate that Defoe will be absent from the FA Cup final, thanks to his having played in the competition for Tottenham before moving to the south coast. "I don't even want to think about it," he said.
Goal: Santa Cruz (74) 0-1.
Portsmouth (4-4-2): Ashdown; Johnson, Campbell, Distin, Lauren; Utaka (Kranjcar, 46), Diarra, Diop, Muntari (Baros, 78); Defoe, Kanu. Substitutes not used: Begovic (gk), Aubey, Davis.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Reid, Samba (Ooijer, 88), Nelsen, Warnock; Vogel, Emerton, Pedersen, Bentley; Santa Cruz, Roberts (Dunn, 90). Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Tugay, Derbyshire.
Referee: M Riley (West Yorkshire).
Booked: Blackburn Reid.
Man of the match: Defoe.
Attendance: 18,722.Reuse content