This was nearly a great match, but then these are nearly two great teams. A draw suited neither particularly but also did for both. It was committed, breathless, full of flicks and tricks with danger lurking in every moment. That it remained goalless was the surprise although the performance of City's kid goalkeeper Joe Hart – who had six rattled past him by Chelsea in his last away game – accounted for much of that.
It's no longer Fortress Fratton down at the south-coast. Now it's Fantasy Fratton. Free-flowing football is the benchmark and the achieved aspiration and City came and, to their great credit, fully played their part. Dreams are being fulfilled. There were predatory, clever competitors all over the pitch – from Kanu to Martin Petrov, from Niko Kranjcar to Elano. A league nations, a cornucopia of talent.
And there were resolute, hungry defenders in Richard Dunne and Micah Richards – the immense City pair – and Sol Campbell to bring those dream-makers back to earth. The way the latter two played bodes well for England with Richards, returning from a knee injury, throwing himself at every challenge, every opportunity. With three minutes to go Richards cleared a dangerous free-kick and then charged five yards outside the area to block Sean Davis's shot. "Richards' pace is scary. He's lightning quick," said Portsmouth's manager, Harry Redknapp.
Everywhere there was speed and skill, aggression and heart. Portsmouth had Sol, City had Hart. The 20-year-old produced a courageous display, and one fine save in particular to deny Portsmouth the victory that would have lifted them up alongside the visitors into the Champions League placings.
That save – turning Glen Johnson's fierce, rising shot on to the crossbar in the first half – left both managers clucking in admiration. "Somehow he's done that," said Redknapp. "Today he was perfect. He's a big, big talent who will get better and better," said City's manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, who then went on to admit that the England Under-21 keeper can expect to be replaced soon by the fit-again Swedish international Andreas Isaksson. "I'm almost sure I'm going to give him the same number of games," he said. "It's only fair."
It did not sound remotely fair. But the truth is that despite Hart's impressive performance Eriksson is certainly in the market for a new No 1 with the most likely candidate, at present, Paul Robinson whom Tottenham Hotspur hope to replace in the January transfer window.
January is likely to be a busy month for both these clubs – partly because Redknapp loves to look at his options – while Eriksson knows he needs to strengthen, especially in attack. Yesterday Darius Vassell was a willing but ineffective presence, fluffing his team's best opportunity when he miscued Petrov's low cross from an incisive pass by Elano, sending the ball back across goal.
Those two combined constantly to provide City with an edge but they were almost cut apart inside the first two minutes. A header from Benjani Mwaruwari and a curling shot from Kranjcar book-ended a drive by the recalled Kanu who could easily have been awarded a penalty with Dunne pulling at his shirt.
Portsmouth continued to seize the initiative with Kanu, starting for the first time since September as Redknapp reshaped his side, pulling the strings. However, at every turn, literally, he was blocked by Richards and gradually City worked their way into the contest with Petrov wasting a fine opportunity when side-footing straight at David James.
Portsmouth lost Kanu – hamstring – and John Utaka – groin – to injury and, for a while, lost their way as City began to probe. Elano played with elan with James blocking his fierce shot with his legs as Eriksson started to sense his side's first away league victory since the season's opening day. Instead, Portsmouth rallied. They were desperately unfortunate when Dunne inadvertently directed a clearance to David Nugent. The striker, on as a substitute struck a vicious drive from 25 yards which clipped Richards, beat Hart – but thumped back off the base of the post. "Nine times out of 10 it would have gone in off the inside of the post," bemoaned Redknapp.
Not that he was too bothered. It's now eight games undefeated for Portsmouth. "I remember when Portsmouth would go eight games without even getting a draw," he said. For now, and for Eriksson also, a point would do.
Portsmouth (4-4-2): James; Johnson, Distin, Campbell, Pamarot; Utaka (Taylor, 46), Davis, Muntari, Kranjcar; Kanu (Nugent, 63), Mwaruwari. Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), Hreidarsson, Mendes.
Manchester City (4-4-1-1): Hart; Corluka, Richards, Dunne, Garrido; Ireland, Fernandes, Hamann, Petrov; Elano (Geovanni, 90); Vassell (Bianchi, 89). Substitutes not used: Isaksson (gk), Ball, Samaras.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Booked: Portsmouth Distin; Manchester City Garrido.
Man of the match: Dunne.
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