Portsmouth 0 Middlesbrough 1: O'Neil warms to task as goal-shy Pompey leave Redknapp cold

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The Independent Online

Harry Redknapp's face told the story. The words were almost unnecessary. His team, once riding on a wave of autumnal confidence to reach fifth in the table, had been beaten for the third time in four games. There were no excuses. A solitary first-half goal stabbed in from close range by Tuncay Sanli rescued Middlesbrough from their own spiral of two defeats, but left Pompey sinking again and without a goal at home in 540 minutes of Premier League action.

"You can't blame the system," said Redknapp, who had gone for a 4-4-2 system after months of sticking to 4-5-1. "We played the old system and went 11 games unbeaten and scored a few goals. Today we were 4-4-2, but it might have been 4-2-4. It didn't matter. It's not about systems, it's about players who can put the ball in the net."

Thankfully for Redknapp, Portsmouth are away at Reading on New Year's Day in the reverse fixture following their 7-4 win over the Berkshire team at the end of September, when they last scored at home. Given the weaknesses in Reading's defence, as shown in yesterday's defeat at Tottenham Hotspur, there may not be a better chance for Portsmouth to rediscover their touch in front of goal.

Middlesbrough, for whom the tireless Gary O'Neil gave a fully committed performance in midfield on his return to his former club, were well worth all three points. They defended well, kept a solid shape and played with real spirit as a unit while Portsmouth floundered, struggled for any fluency and fell back on Route One football in a bid to penetrate a rearguard marshalled with great authority by Jonathan Woodgate and Robert Huth.

"One or two of our players looked tired to me, a bit lacking in zip and movement," said Redknapp. "What we need is someone to score a few goals. We didn't create much at all today. I am short of players who can put the ball in the net. It was just one of those days and it looked like a horrible game to me."

His Middlesbrough counterpart, Gareth Southgate, praised his team's durability and professionalism. "We had a few words together after the Birmingham result," he said. "We posed them a few questions and they responded brilliantly today. I was down to my last 16 senior fit players, so to beat Portsmouth in the Premier League for the first time was a really good result."

Southgate had made four changes to the team beaten at Birmingham City and the returns of O'Neil and Huth were both great successes for him. O'Neil was involved everywhere: he helped to make the goal and collected a harshly awarded yellow card for an over-enthusiastic moment of encroachment at a first-half free- kick.

Warmly welcomed at kick-off, O'Neil was applauded off when he was withdrawn before the final whistle. The home team's efforts were greeted with booing.

The goal came after 19 minutes when Stewart Downing, on the right, crossed with his left foot beyond the far post. O'Neil was there, unmarked, and when his shot was parried by David James, Tuncay was given an easy opportunity to steer the ball in from close range. It was all the visitors needed to encourage them to close ranks and invite Portsmouth to produce the imaginative movement required to breach their defences.

Apart from a few forays by Njiko Kranjcar and a stabbed close-range shot by Kanu during a second-half goalmouth scramble, Portsmouth had no response to offer, and needed a goalmouth clearance by Lauren when Dong-Gook Lee shot at an empty net in the second period to keep the score down to one.

"We got what we deserved," said Redknapp. "Which was nothing."

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