Portsmouth 1 Manchester United 3: Ronaldo revels in United's warmer winter

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The Independent Football

Defiantly loyal as Portsmouth's supporters remain, the Pompey Chimes are taking on a doleful air. Only West Bromwich Albion's debagging at Craven Cottage yesterday afternoon gave the locals any reason to believe there was the slightest chance of escaping relegation after three seasons back among the big boys.

For the first two of those campaigns, Manchester United left Fratton Park with tails between legs after unexpected beatings, but there was a frisky air about them yesterday as victory was tied up by half-time to reduce the gap behind Chelsea to a mere 12 points.

It took a brave late flurry to bring the Hampshire side some self-respect and only their eighth goal in 13 home games. Unfortunately for both these sides, Portsmouth's next fixture is at Stamford Bridge, where they will arrive on the back of seven successive away defeats.

At least the appalling quality of the pitch there will not be a shock. Portsmouth's is not much better, which meant all the more credit to United for the way they played in the first half.

True to their best traditions, Sir Alex Ferguson's side bristled with attacking intent and were well worth the three-goal advantage at half-time. Ryan Giggs, restored to the starting XI, sprang forward from the centre of midfield while Wayne Rooney was back in his proper position supporting Ruud Van Nistelrooy, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Park Ji-Sung working the flanks to good effect.

Portsmouth's problem is that although the squad Harry Redknapp inherited on his return to the club was - as he has pointed out, many times - not good enough, revamping it with nine new players in January has left little time to jell. Lomana LuaLua, back from the African Nations' Cup, was a threat in the later stages, but his expensive new Zimbabwean partner, Benjani Mwaruwari, is short of confidence. In contrast, United's lean new Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic looked the part alongside Rio Ferdinand.

The sum of the home side's efforts in the opening half was an overhead kick by Mwaruwari into the crowd and a cross-shot by LuaLua that bounced in the six-yard box and drifted wide. United, for all their possession, took a while to create chances, but then took them ruthlessly.

In the 18th minute Giggs, as if longing to be a proper forward again, burst through the centre of the home defence, played a one-two with Van Nistelrooy and veered away past the goalkeeper Dean Kiely before clipping his shot against the crossbar. Van Nistelrooy had kept going like the poacher he is and was perfectly placed to head in the rebound for his 22nd goal of the season.

Nearer half-time Mikaël Silvestre chipped a pass forward for the Dutchman to nod down for Ronaldo, who let go a thunderous drive from 25 yards that was past Kiely before he could raise his arms above his head to deal with it. That spared the goalkeeper a dislocated finger or two. He was not spared a third goal before the interval, however. This time, Rooney set up Ronaldo for a clean first touch and low drive into the bottom corner of the net.

Edwin van der Sar having suffered a strain, Tim Howard had to take over in goal at half-time, and was much the busier of the two. LuaLua whipped a low shot beyond his far post and the substitute Wayne Routledge skewed carelessly wide when well placed on the edge of the penalty area. Howard was then forced to earn his appearance money with saves from LuaLua at close range and Pedro Mendes from distance, and three minutes from the end Matthew Taylor headed in Routledge's fiercely driven cross.

The belated revival encouraged Redknapp to say: "We showed a lot of character." At this stage, eight points adrift of safety, it is not going to be enough.